The closing of Merlion last year, just shy of its 10th anniversary, reduced the number of Malaysian restaurants in the Triangle to zero.
Fans of the cuisine didn’t have to go cold turkey for long. In November, just three months after Merlion was shuttered, Rasa Malaysia opened in the same space in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village. The place got a modest makeover – new carpet, a fresh coat of paint, a breezy mural of butterflies and kites spanning one wall – but for the most part the dining room remains unchanged. Returning regulars were pleased to see that Simon Leong, Merlion’s affable host and manager, is back at his post.
More than a few, no doubt, have wondered if the food would be the same under new management.
The answer, it turns out, is yes and no. The classics of Malaysia’s melting pot cuisine continue to be well-represented. At one end of the flavor spectrum is nasi lemak, considered to be the country’s national dish – though Westerners may wonder how a dish featuring anchovies two ways (deep-fried, and in a pungent hot relish called a sambal) came to be a breakfast favorite in Singapore. At the other end of the spectrum is the Chinese-inspired Hainanese chicken rice, a dish that newcomers to the cuisine may find downright bland – that is, until they start dipping the poached chicken into the three accompanying dipping sauces – ginger, chile and sweet soy.
Between those two extremes is a rainbow assortment of dishes whose exotic names belie their easy-to-like flavors. Stuffed you tiao, savory shrimp-stuffed “crullers” – a little like miniature spring rolls, but in a deep-fried wheat dough crust – arrive buried under a salad of julienne vegetables and mango in a creamy-sweet dressing. Nasi kuning serves up jumbo shrimp, scallops and turmeric-scented rice beneath a shower of slivered almonds, dried cherries, raisins, scallions and crispy threads of fried shallot. Kari ayam, a Malaysian chicken curry redolent of star anise and other spices, is served with roti canai, a flatbread that traces its roots to India.
New owner/chef Winnie Leong, who worked alongside her husband at Merlion, has also retained a few of that restaurant’s contemporary fusion favorites: coconut shrimp, green tea fried rice and roast duck wrap, served on a plate artfully decorated with zigzag squiggles of plum sauce.
But Leong is putting her personal imprint on the menu as well, frequently nudging the flavor dial away from the Singaporean epicenter of the Merlion menu, and toward the regional variations of her native Taiping in northern Malaysia, near the Thai border. Her green curry tofu, perfumed with tropical spices and chockablock with Asian eggplant, red bell peppers and okra, would be the envy of many a Thai restaurant. Same goes for her chicken satay, sweetly succulent in its grill-charred coconut milk marinade, and served with a classic peanut dipping sauce. It should come as no surprise that her pad thai has quickly won a devoted following.
Sambal oelek fish amps up the flavor profile of a Thai curry with a dollop of its namesake chile paste swirled into the sauce. The combination makes for a flavor as vivid as the curry’s fiery orange color, spread over a panko-crusted filet of deep-fried swai like sunset on a tropical beach.
The self-taught chef draws on memories of Penang, near her childhood home, for her rendition of another Malaysian dish, char kway teow: wide rice noodles with shrimp and fishcake in a rich, dark sauce laced with kecap manis, Indonesia’s palm sugar-sweetened answer to soy sauce.
The dessert offering runs the gamut from cheesecake roll (“crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside with caramel and banana”), clearly aimed at the American palate, to something called grass jelly drink (no, I didn’t try it). The sweet spot is in the middle: sago pudding, a molded cylinder of tapioca drizzled with coconut cream and palm sugar. A sort of exotic creme caramel, you might say, deserving of its billing as “our signature dessert!”
Disappointments – the ones that can’t be chalked up to a matter of acquired taste, that is (anchovy sambal is really, really fishy) – are infrequent. On a recent appetizer sampler platter, everything except the spring rolls had been left in the fryer a little too long. And in my opinion, the boneless breast in Rasa Malaysia’s rendition of kari ayam doesn’t hold up as well as the traditional dark meat.
That said, Rasa Malaysia is a most welcome addition to the local dining scene, and not just because it’s the only option for Malaysian cuisine in the Triangle. It happens to be a very good standard-bearer, and the fact that it comes with a different accent than its predecessor is just icing on the cheesecake roll.
410 Market St., Chapel Hill; 984-234-0256
Atmosphere: warmly inviting
Noise level: low
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: chicken satay, sambal oelek, nasi kuning, kari ayam, green curry tofu, sago pudding
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in nearby lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.