When Merlion closed in August, just shy of its tenth anniversary, it brought the number of Triangle area restaurants specializing in Malaysian cuisine to zero. But fans didn’t have to go cold turkey for long — just until November, in fact, when Rasa Malaysia opened in the former Merlion space in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village.
Returning regulars will be pleased to discover that Simon Leung is back in his role as affable host and manager of the dining room — which has gotten a minor makeover with new carpet and a fresh coat of paint (highlighted by a cheery mural of butterflies and birds spanning one wall).
New owner/chef Winnie Leong (Simon’s wife, as it happens) has tweaked the menu a bit, too. A first-time restaurateur but veteran caterer who got her start cooking for family gatherings in Malaysia, her menu retains all the Merlion favorites, including Hainanese chicken rice, the national dish of Singapore. But Leong has nudged the flavor dial away from Singapore in a number of dishes, and toward the regional variations of her native Taiping in northern Malaysia, near the Thai border.
Simon Leong elaborates: “Her chicken saté is more tasty. She makes it with plum sauce and peanuts, not just coconut milk.” For more examples of his wife’s Leong points to a section labeled “Kampung Favorites.”
“Nasi lemak is her specialty,” he says, referring to a chicken curry punctuated with ikan billis (fried anchovies), and served with coconut rice on a banana leaf. He also recommends Penang char kway teow (wide rice noodles with shrimp and fishcake in a dark kechap manis sauce) and roti canai with curry ayam (a Malaysian-Indian fusion featuring buttered flatbreads layered with chicken and potato curry).
Rasa Malaysia (410-320 Market St., Chapel Hill; 984-234-0256; rasamalaysiach.com) serves lunch and dinner daily. There’s a full bar, where one of the house specialty cocktails is — naturally — a Singapore Sling.
Greg Cox, the longtime N&O restaurant critic, also covers restaurant news. Reach him at email@example.com.