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Over the years, I've been assembling a dream menu of the best foods I've ever eaten, a desert-island top ten from which I'd choose if ever asked the question, "If you could eat only one thing every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
Beef jerky is near the top of my list and always will be. And not just because it's a survival food, either, but because jerky is what I seem to eat the most when I'm not out on the job with someone else cooking for me and am too lazy to cook for myself. Mantu -- a kind of Afghan dumpling filled with herbed meat and onions, then covered with spiced lentils and cool yogurt -- from Albuquerque's Tora Bora House is right up there; so are the red-chile breakfast burritos from Milton's across town. Arby's curly fries; poached sea bass with figs and French toast stuffed with sweet-potato purée from the Spring Mill Cafe outside of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania; fat, late-season Granny Smith apples; D'Anjou pears with honey; Matt Peltier's seafood pho with Mongolian fish sauce from Le Metro Cite in Buffalo; my own pork with sour-cherry glace de viande -- these are all on the list in ever-shifting order, depending on my mood.
But roti canai --specifically, the roti canai from Penang (the restaurant with locations in New York and Philadelphia, not the city in Malaysia) -- will always head my list. And now here I am in Denver, 1,700 miles (give or take) from the place where I had my first, best and most enduring taste of this Malaysian appetizer that I could eat every day for the rest of my natural life, and the roti canai is exactly the same as I remember it, because one of the Penang chefs is in the kitchen at Singapore Grill. Michael Lee, a native of Malaysia, comes from a family with a generational history in the restaurant business, and he spent several years in Penang's galley before he was hired away by Kin Kong, who opened the Singapore Grill here in June 2001.
2022 S. University Blvd.
Denver, CO 80210
Region: South Denver
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Isle of Singapore
2022 South University Boulevard, 303-777-8388
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday
noon-10 p.m. Saturday
noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
Chicken satay: $4.25
Seafood soup: $6.95
Shrimp w/whole chiles: $9.95
Durian smoothie: $2.50
Technically, roti canai is just an unleavened pancake served beside anything in need of such an item to soak it up, but that description doesn't do it justice. Michael Lee's roti canai is not a pancake, but a work of alchemy in which a simple dough of flour, salt, water and sugar is transformed into something magical. It takes years of practice before a cook is able to stretch and throw the dough properly, working it until it is thinner than paper, then grilling it in ghee -- Indian clarified butter -- until it crisps in veins and around the edges while remaining soft and chewy in between. In Malaysia, the best roti throwers work out in front of their restaurants, showing off their skills to the hungry crowds, but at Singapore Grill, all the magic happens behind closed doors.
And that's a pity, because I would have liked to see Michael work. I would have liked to tell him that I was impressed by Penang when I ate there for the first time years ago. I would have liked to tell him that I've rarely had a meal as memorable as that one. I would have liked to tell him that it probably even had a little to do with my getting married, because that meal was one of the first big, romantic dinners that Laura, now my wife, and I had together. But I didn't say anything, because you don't look a gift horse like this in the mouth. You shut up, thank the stars that you've found such unexpected happiness, and start eating.
Singapore Grill's roti canai was thin as a dream -- crisp in some places, pliable and soft in others, as delicately sweet as pastry and mounded up on the plate like a fall of silk. It was accompanied (as it should be, but often isn't) by a smooth curry and coconut-milk stew studded with bits of chicken and potato that was spicy enough to make you sweat but somehow didn't overpower the roti's fragile sweetness. I don't know how Michael does that, exactly. Like I said, it's magic.
Also on the table was murtabak (a kind of sliced roti pillow stuffed with spiced ground beef and onions) and shrimp in taro: shelled, tail-on shrimp wrapped in puffy deep-fried jackets of the nutty starch that made them look like crustacean gangsta rappers. These shrimp were much more interesting than the lame butterflied-and-battered variety available at 10,000 other Asian restaurants, and they came with a sauce several degrees removed from your usual ketchup-and-horseradish cocktail mix. It was still red, but sweet and gooey, spiked with unidentifiable bits of something (I'm guessing mango), with a mildly spicy bite that was sharp enough to hold its own against the heavy taro batter.
There were three of us there for dinner, and we devoured these appetizers -- including another round of roti canai -- in what seemed like seconds before the main courses began arriving. First, beef rendang, an archetypal Malaysian dish that's generally the most recognizable and palate-friendly to a wide-eyed rookie new to this cuisine. At its best, it's a stew of beef sweated or poached in coconut milk and mild curry, then left to grow tender while its own juices mix with the sweet milk and reduce into a thick, powerful gravy. Here, unfortunately, the classic had been rushed, and while a properly coddled beef rendang can be cut with a fork, this one was tough and stringy, able to withstand the attack of any utensil. And although the sauce was good -- smoky with curry, thick and brown, sweetened a bit by the coconut milk and given legs and solidity by the beef -- it wasn't good enough to overcome the tough meat, or the inattention that allowed it to get that way.