I have wanted to hold a Chowdown here at Seri Malaysia for quite a while now. I don't really know why it didn't happen earlier, but finally it happened last night. I have been a regular at Seri Malaysia for a quite a long time now - since around the time it first opened a number years ago. My first bite there told me that this is the real deal. I think I ordered the Beef Rendang and the Nasi Goreng Kampong....and I recall thinking how the flavours were not at all muted like at all the other Malaysian places in town.
Chef Jamal, the lone operator here, used to be part owner of Kedah House prior to striking out on his own. He is Malay (from Mersing, Johor on the east coast) and his cooking has the flavour profile of Halal "Malay-Malaysian" instead of the usual "Chinese-Malaysian" (Tropika, Banana Leaf are prime examples of that style). Seri Malaysia is one of two places that serve this type of cuisine (the other being the lacklustre Kedah House).
The flavours here are bold - strong flavours from the salty dried seafood (anchovies, belachan, dried shrimp), heat from chilies, and subtle spicing from Malaysian curry powders. A few people commented on the higher than usual salt levels - which to me is typical of much of South East Asian cuisine. Indeed, reducing the amount of salt (a common compromise to appeal to Western palates) will detract from the authenticity of the flavours.
The presentation is homestyle: no-frills and honest. He might add some deep-fried onion chips, chopped cucumbers and onions to your dishes, but that is it. The ambiance is spartan and a bit shabby. These two factors are irrelevant to me personally - but I thought I would mention it if it matters to you.
The service sometimes suffers because he is often a one-man show. Yet the service here is much better than most places nearby with full complement of staff. I have seen him serve an almost full restaurant by himself - serving, bussing, taking orders, cooking. If it gets overly busy, the regulars know to make allowances and just get up and grab their own pitcher of water or utensils or whatever. They (we) know Jamal works his ass off and would appreciate it. He does have hired help on busy days. I thought I would mention it if this scenario will bother you.
One more thing: it is inexpensive. Dishes that go for about $12 elsewhere are going for about $8 here. Insanely cheap.
Here is a list of what we ordered:
Roti Canai - nice, and flakey though not homemade, but prepared from frozen. Still very good.
Beef and Chicken Satay - nice flavours from the well marinated meat. The peanut sauce was a tad sweet. The meat wasn't "juicy", but that is common in Satays made with lean meat.
Nasi Goreng Kampong - a "village" or "homestyle" fried rice with shrimp and small dried anchovies. I love this stuff. Aroma and saltiness from the anchovies, lots of chili heat, and a significant amount of wok hei (owing to Jamal's rocket burner wok stove).
Kambing Bryani - Lamb Bryani. One of Jamal's signature dishes. Malaysians from all over the area have been known to buy this in bulk for parties and weddings. Nicely aromatic from the curry spices and whole cardamom. The meat was tender (though today not its usual "falling off the bone tender" )
Beef Rendang - another dish that Chef Jamal is known for. Nice tender beef in a long cooked highly spiced and thick coconut based sauce. Deeply savoury and aromatic. Addicting with a side of white rice.
Kacang Boncis - Green beans dried fried in a salty dried prawn paste. One of the best single dishes in this city. Whenever I introduce someone to this dish, it invariable becomes part of their usual order here when they come back to the restaurant. The beans are just barely cooked through and the prawn paste lends its salty goodness with each bite.
Peppercorn Chili Garlic Prawns - nice lightly deepfried prawns which are then tossed together in a garlic and peppercorn stirfry. Also very nice and was receiving accolades.
Ikan Sambal - deep fried mackarel with a sambal belachan (a spice paste made with blocks of dried prawn). The least successful of the dishes tonight. The mackarel were small and were a bit overcooked. I must say that I have had a better rendition of this dish in the past.
Mee Goreng - nice sweet/savoury Kecap Manis (sweet soya) based sauce. Most examples are syrupy sweet. Not this one...it is nicely balanced. Jamal's hot wok perfumed the dish with nice amount of wok hei.
Cendol - this is the best cendol in this city. Jamal uses a good amount of Gula Melaka (pure Mallacan palm sugar). It gives the drink an deep, caramelized, slightly tart flavour. Very good on a hot day or after eating a spicy meal.
Ice Bandung - Rose Milk which is made with a hard-to-find rose-pandan syrup. Chef has to have this syrup shipped from Malaysia as it is impossible to find here.
Part of the problem with running an ethnic restaurant in this part of town is stocking fresh seafood and greens. Some of the Malaysian classics here become prey to this problem. For example kangkong (water convulvus) dishes and seafood dishes are often not available or are a special order. One tip: Call ahead for some of his specials (Fish Head Curry, Chili Crab, etc.) or bring your own ingredients (crab for chili crab, kangkong) and he will be happy to cook it fresh for you.
I highly recommend this place. While a couple of the dishes may fall a little flat, there really is nowhere else you can get this food at this level of cooking. Jamal operates in a bit of isolation - as such he doesn't compromise on the authenticity of the flavours - and indeed may be oblivious to such compromises. He doesn't tone down, Sinify or Westernize like the more well-known Malaysian places like Banana Leaf and Tropika. He, however, necessarily compromises on ingredients (availability of authentic ingredients, and stocking fresh are the usual issues).
If anyone would like to join us in these Chowdowns please log on here and introduce yourself:
Seri Malaysia Restaurant
2327E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V5L1V6, CA