Pearl Street Harbor, as one chef deemed it when South Pearl Street, once a destination restaurant row, had lost Pearl Street Grill, OTOTO and India's Pearl within days of each other, has a new dining den, and after having dinner there on Monday night, I'm inclined to move in.
Makan Malaysian Cafe, a blond-wooded, honeydew-hued, one-room shrine to the cooking of Southeast Asia, its cuisine rooted in the cultures and histories of China, Indonesia and India, is marked by roti and curry puffs, curried chicken and beef rendang, laksa and fried anchovies -- and sambal, the dangerously hot chile paste that doubles as a sunburn when it thrashes your tongue.
This is the kind of food that I love, with names that require a pronunciation guide, exotic ingredients that often reek of funk but soon become insatiable cravings and spices that I want as aromatic mists in my kitchen.
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When I stopped in, owner-chef Karen Wee Lin Beckman had just put out a fire, thanks to a small mishap with the bamboo steamers for her siu mai -- "We opened today at 5, and it didn't take long for opening night drama to set in," she joked -- but when I arrived, the pace was peaceful and the food, which is chronicled on the following pages, blew me away.
Nasi lemak: Steamed coconut rice plated with roasted peanuts, soft-boiled eggs, fried anchovies, cucumber rounds and sambal. The space, which seats around thirty, has a large community table that Beckman hopes will become a nucleus of conversation. The dough for the roti, made with wheat, salt, sugar and milk, is griddled, crumpled until it flakes and served with a choice of dhal or chicken curry, and sambal. Beckman rolls out the dough for the roti. Mee Siam, a medley of rice noodles, shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts, spring onions and shredded eggs floating in a spicy coconut broth topped with cilantro. Kari Ayam -- or curried chicken and potatoes with Malaysian spices and coconut milk. Siu mai with pork, shrimp and water chestnuts. Rendang daging -- or beef rendang with spices and coconut milk. Laksa, a noodle bowl bobbing with fish balls, bean sprouts, tofu and cilantro in a coconut milk broth. The popiah, Malaysian-style spring rolls hugging jicama, carrots, Chinese sausage, cilantro and shreds of omelet, served with chopped peanuts and a sweet and spicy soy sauce. Kuis dadar, green crepes aromatic with the essence of pandan and stuffed with shredded coconut, alongside pineapple "tarts" filled with cinnamon-scented pineapple jam. The dining room.
Makam Malaysian Cafe is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call 720-524-8093.