Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Matahari Grill

Funny how you can think you know a street so well, only to realize over the years there's been a gem that has gone unnoticed, shining in a dark corner. I thought I knew Baldwin street. How I love the saucy Indian food at Jodhpore, and the unique sushi offered at Konichiwa (one of only a handful of Japanese places I'll bother with now that I've realized how unimaginative sushi restaurants tend to be).
The crisp, thick white tablecloths and dim lights at the Matahari Bar & Grill always scared me away. I like to keep my dining very casual, and from the outside it seems very business class, very satin dress and high heels. I don't think I had any curiosity about what kind of food they served, either. Sadly it had never made even the slightest indentation on my gastronomical radar.
All these misplaced assumptions, these terrible mistakes!
My friend Sandy shares my love of Baldwin street, but was shocked that I had never been to Matahari (39 Baldwin St), or tried any Malaysian food at all (other that the nasi-goreng-from-a-package we eat under my Oma's rule). With embarrassment I admitted I didn't even know that cuisine is what Matahari offers. Happy to be led with ebullient suggestions and recommendations, I let him do the ordering, and tell me what he knew about Malaysian food. Because of its geographical location, there's a blend of influences from China, India, Eurasia, and the flavourful Malay flavour as well.

My first lesson came along with our appetizer. When Sandy ordered a Roti (1.25$), my eyes bulged and I worried aloud, how on earth would we eat so much? Two mains, individual rice bowls, and a roti? Impossible! Even in my self indulgent food enthusiasm, could I ever eat so much? Here my assumption was that we were to be served some massive stuffed and folded up bundle of curry sauce and potato, a-la-Ghandi's (or my personal favourite, Island Foods). This is not that Trinidadian style roti. As I learned (is so much of my eating experience learning? Do I really know so little about the world and its noshes?), the word doesn't even mean what I thought. Many breads from Asia are called roti. Chapati, paratha, roti! What we were served was a small, flaky disk about the size of a big grapefruit in diameter, it's edges flaky like puff pastry. This was very delicate and layered with the sweet taste of butter. It was not chewy like naan, but salty and tender in the center, doughy but cooked, with those wonderful layered edges like dry fall leaves.

One of the mains that we ordered to share was this incredible simmered beef rib dish, the Rendang Beef (18$). It came in a deep bowl, piled high onto a majestic and ruffled leaf of romaine. At first it didn't seem like so much, but as we kept going back to refill our plates, it seemed like the beef never ran out. Though this is rib meat, the bone is gone- I suspect it sloughed away from the soft, babyish meat after hours of careful simmering. The flavour was pure Malay (so I was told), with a dry, not hot curry flavour. It also contains coconut milk which I did not taste, but would have worked with all the natural fats to make that delightful sweetness in the deep grains of the meat. The ribs were incredibly marbled, rich and juicy, and I couldn't believe how well crafted the dish was. It was pure and simple, and incredibly satisfying. A quality cut of meat handled with a light hand can be so gratifying, and this is the dish I know I'll order when I return.

Unlike our meaty main, the Casbah Cashew Prawn (18$) was a dish with a very noticeable Chinese influence. It was coated in a thick and rather cloying sweet garlic sauce. This is my least favourite aspect of Chinese cooking, a cuisine which I am not particularly fond of to begin. I don't like warm, sweet sauces. I always find them somehow greasy, and that is also how I felt about this dish. Sandy said it wasn't as good as usual. The garlic in the sauce was smoky and pungent, dressing the flavour of all the vegetables and concealing their milder tastes. It could have been any veg in there, and had little effect on the taste. The prawns and veggies were cooked beautifully, firm enough to retain all their texture, the pink sea bugs snapping and bursting with juice. If only that sauce hadn't been so thick and sweet! I appreciated the dryness of the cashew sprinkled on top, but otherwise was not impressed.
 There was no way not to love this, and I'm not just saying that as a lifetime devotee of white rice. Yes it's true, there are few foods in this world that beat the simple pleasure of a bowl of well handled, moist, glutinous rice; parboiled grains, sticky japonica, dense arborio, or fluffy basmati, please. Considering one of my favourite complimentary flavours in cooking is coconut, I knew I would love the Coconut Rice (2.00$) from Matahari Bar and Grill. The bowl was packed as tight as an onigiri with the high pile of sweetish rice, that was not so sweet it that would pass for dessert (it wasn't meant to be).  The grains were small and perfectly cooked, and there was a saltiness from just enough butter to keep it on the edge of savoury. Apparently it's usually got a stronger flavour of coconut, but tonight I found it mild. I think that is better for mixing with savoury mains, like our delicious simmered short ribs.

Can you tell I got some isometric grid paper to play with? Oh yeeeeah. Things that make me happy and nerdy....
Matahari Grill on Urbanspoon

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