A new Malaysian restaurant in Mason aims to capitalize on Cincinnati's increasingly adventurous palate. Called, "Straits of Malacca," the restaurant is named for the narrow strip of water connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans between West Malaysia and the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.
Vital Malaysian ports like Malacca City and George Town have long intersected the routes of many foreign trade merchants, who have slothed off bits and pieces of their culture along the way. The result is a country with a simmering, stewy melting pot of Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, English, Dutch and Portuguese influences, making Malaysian cuisine one of the most diverse in the world.
Straits of Malacca offers three sets of menus and three very different dining experiences that represent, for all intent and purpose, a trio of restaurants housed under one roof. There is Tioman Cafe, a smaller, self-contained kitchen and dining area catering to mostly the lunch crowd; Blue Intan, a tapas bar serving exotic snacks and drinks; and Langkawi Spice, a significantly more formal, upscale and pricier dining setting for dinner.
For our visit, we chose the leisurely Tioman Cafe, entering an impressively renovated art deco building that had once been, not too long ago, Mason's City Building and jail. The Tioman Cafe's menu, while abbreviated, offers plenty of unique flavors most Cincinnatians will discover for the first time --but don't be afraid: there's plenty of familiar fare for the less adventurous.
Ordering at the counter, we started off with a flaky Chicken Curry Puff, a beautifully golden triangular pastry filled with a mildly spicy chicken and potato mixture. I was fascinated by tiny rows of custard-like egg tarts gleaming back at me from behind the display case, so I eagerly pointed at one to split with my girlfriend.
Our lunch entrees included the Asam Laksa, a spicy rice noodle dish with a mackerel-infused broth topped with whisps of fresh cucumber, finely-diced pineapple, jalapenos, onions and mint. The unlikely combination reflects a dish that ranked 7th on CNN's "World's 50 Most Delicious Foods" list. My girlfriend chose another Malaysian favorite from the weekend lunch special: Claypot Chicken with rice and mushrooms.
The bowl of Asam Laksa was handsomely presented, peppered with bits of mackerel and decorated with mint leaves and jalapeno slices. The bits of pineapple lent a curious sweetness that somehow complemented the fishy broth. Though advertised as a spicy entree, I found the Asam Laksa rather mild, albeit complex and delicious. The mackerel element reminded me of Sicilian dishes we've enjoyed, which similarly make effective use of sweet-and-savory combinations like anchovies and raisins.
My girlfriend's Claypot Chicken offered an equally colorful and mouth-watering presentation, with hearty Asian vegetables, shiitake mushrooms and onions nestled comfortably amid ample hunks of chicken on a bed of sticky rice. The dish also seemed in need of more spice, but perhaps that opinion is based on inaccurate, pre-conceived notions of what Malaysian food should be rather than the reality.
Whatever the case, Straits of Malacca is a welcome window into a larger culinary world, beckoning patrons to experience exotic flavors from a land nearly 10,000 miles away.
Price: Moderately Expensive ($11 - $16 per person)