Jimmy and Alex Toh like to talk about food. Sit with this father-and-son pair in Aneka Rasa, the Malaysian restaurant they opened in Allston this February, and the talk of aromatic snacks from the night markets in their home city of Kuala Lumpur grows rapturous.
They talk of how lemongrass-infused satay marinades need to "match" their peanut dipping sauce, how a good bah kut teh (herbal pork soup) must have a "clean, strong broth," how it's a relief to have a restaurant of their own.
"I'm finally able to eat the food I've never been able to eat the 11 years I've been here," says Alex, who made sure his favorites made the Aneka menu. It doesn't hurt to start with his most-loved dish, otak-otak ($4.50).
Just as you would find them at the night market food stalls, the otak-otak here are grilled in neatly folded packets of banana leaf, pinned shut with little sticks. Simply pulling the sticks from the blackened packet, opening it, and inhaling the sweet char scent of the leaf delivers sensory pleasure.
Biting into the turmeric-orange fish cake snaps open a fan of Southeast Asian flavors -- gingery galangal, sweet coconut, bright lemongrass, rich shrimp paste, warming curry powder, hot chili pepper -- all woven together with the taste of fire.
You could stop right there and be happy, but the way to go here is to order a range of dishes to share. Malaysian cooking is a masterful merging of the elegance of Chinese cuisine with the bounce of Thai food and the complex hum of Indian spicing. With such fertile stomping ground, few dishes on Aneka's lengthy menu repeat flavors, so just experiment or ask the attentive servers for advice.
For starters, roti canai ($3.25), chicken curry sauce that we eagerly sopped up with a crepe-thin bread, was something you might get if a batch of biscuits and gravy collided with a South Indian spice cabinet -- comfort and pizzazz all in one.
Chinese rice wine and garlic chives gently dressed up a superbly delicate baby oyster omelet ($6.50). Taro udang ($6.95) was simple but grand with fluffy fried puffs of taro dough wrapped around tender shrimp. And, yes, the skewers of grilled, lemongrassy beef satay ($6.50) matched their heady, galangal-spiked peanut sauce. The only appetizer flop was the bland poh piah spring rolls ($5.25).
For those who know the Penang restaurant chain, Aneka Rasa may feel like deja vu. Jimmy managed Penang Boston and then Penang Harvard Square until he went solo. Much of the menu overlaps, and the spacious dining room's dark wood tables, warm-toned walls, and bamboo accents also recall Penang. But this is an independent restaurant with different recipes and additional choices.
Nasi lemak ($6.75), a platter of sticky-sweet coconut rice with intensely spiced curried-coconut chicken, comes with a side of achat pickled salad made from the chef's home recipe. This crunchy veggie and pineapple mix hopped up with curry powder jumps from sweet to sour to spicy to salty all in one bite.
Rendang beef ($11.95), another Malaysian classic, benefits from extra dried shrimp and curry leaf. The chef slowly simmers this coconut curry down with the ground shrimp, leaves, chili, galangal, garlic, and so on, until only the oil from the coconut and the concentrated spices bathe the meat. The beef itself was chewy, the flavor divine.
The usual light, sweet, red chili sauce tossed with sambal shrimp ($8.95) was nicely cut with the tang of fresh mango. Choose pearl rice noodles for the clay pot noodle dish ($6.50) and you get a stew of veggies dotted with shrimp and pork. Most important, the soft, drop-shaped noodles come soaked through with the mild flavors of mushroom and a savory brown sauce.
A few dishes didn't hold up. Yam pot seafood ($12.95) set a subtle toss of seafood in a mushy ring of fried yam dough. King pork buff ($9.95) suffered from an oversweet barbecue sauce.
But Aneka is still new. When a Malaysian friend dining with me called Jimmy over to mention the lackluster chili sauce served with the Hainanese chicken rice ($5.95), he immediately went to the chef (we were dining anonymously). Both Tohs say they are eager to incorporate customer tips, whether it be passing on spicing suggestions to the chef (as Jimmy did here), or tallying customer votes on which specials to move to the permanent menu (as they did with otak-otak).
Desserts, however, need no improvement. Whether we ordered pure, fresh watermelon juice ($2.95), warm, black rice pudding (pulut hitam, $3.25), or crispy peanut pancake ($5.50) stuffed with a buttery goo of peanuts and corn, we were left purring, or chanting. The fresh coconut milk pudding ($6) had us repeating "so good" with nearly every spoonful.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants. Steve's Authentic Greek Cuisine 316 Newbury St., Boston, 617-267-1817. Sitting pretty at the corner of Hereford for the past 22 years -- when there was nothing chic about "the other end" of Newbury Street -- Steve's offers inexpensive kebabs, along with other Greek specialties, such as the salted roe spread taramosalata and lemony avgolemono. Some Back Bay locals eat breakfast at Steve's several times a week. (5/13/04, S.J.)
Victoria Seafood, 1029 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-783-5111. This unpretentious Chinese restaurant is a great place for a large party: You can feed a dozen people for under $100, without sacrificing quality. Try the special twin lobsters, done one of four ways, for $12.95. The sizzling beef with black pepper includes another favorite: garlicky green beans on top. And the hotpot dishes aren't something you see on most Chinese menus. With 247 items on the menu, you can't go wrong. (5/6/04, B.E.) El Taino 417 Hyde Park Ave., Roslindale. 617-325-5900. This Puerto Rican restaurant and Latin nightclub gives local islanders a taste of their native home and introduces island cooking -- which combines Caribbean, African, Indian, and European foods and seasonings -- to those unfamiliar. That means plenty of fried and baked meats and seafoods, lots of plantains, and delicious tropical juices and nectars. Come nighttime, the music ratchets up and tables are removed to create a dance floor. (04/29/04, S.P.)
Punjabi Dhaba 225 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-547-8272. Billed as an "Indian roadside cafe," Punjabi serves terrific, cheap food in a no-nonsense place where you order at a counter and take a large stainless steel tray -- heaped with curry and a mountain of rice and a zippy little onion pickle -- and find a seat in the crowd. The shimp masala, saag paneer (homemade cheese in spinach puree), and tandoori chicken will keep you coming back. (4/22/04, S.J.) Caffe Paolina 646 Humphrey St., Swampscott. 781-593-6455. The homemade pastas, light Southern Italian cuisine, and superb tiramisu at this petit restaurant taste all the better when served up by the friendly Lapore family. (4/15/04, D.T.)
Grill 417 417 Hanover St., Boston. 617-742-7172. It's getting difficult to find good, affordable restaurants in the North End. This one fits the bill. It's a small, casual place where freshness is the operative word, from the antipasto to the Grill 417, a grilled seafood platter with scallops, shrimp, tuna, swordfish, and salmon, as well as grilled veggies. (4/8/04, B.E.)