But there are times, damn it, when I have to face the public as my scruffy old self. Two weeks ago, I stepped out of my car in front of a Mexican restaurant in Johnson County and was immediately recognized by the manager (an old pal from the 1990s) and one of the servers, whom I've known since she was a bratty preteen. My Rudy Giuliani ensemble should be back from the dry cleaner before I have to go there again.
I never thought about wearing a disguise on the afternoon I walked into the Malay Café with three friends. I hadn't been to this Northland restaurant in more than half a decade. Since I last reviewed it ("Up, Up and Malay," January 17, 2002), the original owner had sold the place and, I'd been told, moved back to Malaysia.
Loretta, Justin, Tyrone and I had barely taken our seats in the narrow dining room when a petite waitress started chatting with me as if we were old friends. I would have sworn that I'd never seen this woman in my life, but I'm wary of doing that anymore (since a complete stranger walked up to me in Indianapolis last year and reminded me that in the 1970s, we had lived together).
"Are you the new owner of this restaurant?" I asked.
No, she told me, she was the former owner of the Malay Café — the one who was supposed to be back in Malaysia. Since 2002, when I'd last spoken to Allison Lim (who ran the restaurant with her husband and her brother-in-law), she'd sold the cozy little bistro to one of her chefs, Shanghai-born Bill Fang, and his wife, June. "But he learned all about Malaysian cooking from working with us," Lim said, "and my brother-in-law still cooks here, too."
Lim had gone back to her home country to spend time with her dying father. When she returned to the states, she wasn't interested in running a restaurant. But she does enjoy helping the Fangs by waiting tables several afternoons a week.
My cover was blown, but fortunately, I had eaten a quiet, anonymous dinner in the restaurant a week earlier. And I can say that the food is just as fine as it was when I first stumbled into the hard-to-find location — sandwiched, nearly invisibly, between a Pier 1 and a HoneyBaked Ham store in a strip mall — five years ago.
But the Fangs need to address some details.
As someone who literally grew up working in the restaurant trade, I've always maintained that a less-than-spotless bathroom usually doesn't bode well for the tidiness of the kitchen. (There are exceptions to this rule, but not many.) That's why I cringed when Wendy, my dining companion on the first visit, returned to our table from the salle de bains and whispered, "This is such a cute little place, but the bathroom is something from a truck stop."
"Don't think about it," I said, trying to soothe her as I ladled herb soup from a big bowl into her white soup bowl. "Think about balance."
That's the operative word on the menu's description of this seemingly simple soup — "Chinese herbs balance Yin and Yang" — which was a mild chicken broth seasoned with ginseng, ginger and garlic, with floating mushrooms, carrots and snow peas. No one needs to tell me that my yin and yang are frequently haywire, so this soup was the perfect way to settle things down for the next course. Along with a couple of skewers of chicken satay and the usual array of peanut, chili and sweet-and-sour sauces, the starter medley called "Malaysia Sampler" was heaped with fried delicacies (maybe not so good for my yin or my yang) such as crispy spring rolls, a wonton purse stuffed with smoked salmon, a golden puff filled with pieces of sweet potato, chewy coconut-breaded shrimp, and an unfortunately crabless rangoon.
"I'm in deep-fried heaven," Wendy said.
A friend once explained to me that Malaysian cuisine is the first fusion food because the country's population is predominantly Muslim, Hindu and Chinese. But fried foods are universally beloved, and most of that night's customers — from the well-dressed swells sitting at the front of the house to the rangy guy with the glorious mullet at a table toward the rear — were biting into crunchy appetizers.
Entrées here range from Chinese-American fare (pineapple chicken) to spicier Singapore standards such as Wendy's garlicky Sambal chicken (sautéed with zucchini, peppers, broccoli and bean sprouts). When my own dinner arrived — nearly 15 minutes after Wendy's — the aromatic rendang beef was flavored with lemongrass, chilies, cumin and coconut milk.
"Why haven't I ever heard of this place?" Wendy asked.
Probably because of the location. Only recently has the Northland become a mecca for interesting ethnic cuisines.
The three midtown friends I brought to lunch had heard of the Malay Café, but only one had been there. Loretta, Justin and Tyrone were amused by the Muzak soundtrack — greatest hits from old movies, including Dr. Zhivago and Top Gun. We agreed that real Malaysian music would underscore Bill Fang's culinary talents more than the melancholy theme from Love Story, which is what was playing when we were served huge bowls of soup, a vegetable broth with bits of tofu, baby corn and cabbage. "It has a kick to it," Lim told us, but it was more like a tap.
I have to assume that Fang's kitchen crew was being careful to do its best work that day. And that someone was making sure all of the meals came out on time.
Tyrone, the vegan in the group, ordered what turned out to be the best dish: a plate of flash-fried tofu cubes glazed with a supple ginger-tomato sauce. We all loved it. I was pleased enough with my own traditional Indonesian nasi goreng, a shiny mahogany mound of mildly seasoned rice, hunks of chicken, tomato and peas. Loretta's laksa lemak, another signature dish here, evoked the Vietnamese pho, only this noodle bowl featured a delicate curry fragrant with lime and lemongrass and laden with vegetables and pieces of chicken breast.
Justin, however, seemed underwhelmed. He'd ordered a plate of tender beef slices in what was supposed to be a snazzy pepper sauce. "It's not peppery enough," he said. Not enough of a kick, I guess.
Best of all, though, were the over-the-top desserts: a quivering, warm coconut flan and a towering parfait made with two superb house-made ice creams — a tarty pineapple with lots of chopped fruit and a neon-green Key lime topped with a cloud of whipped cream.
If I keep coming back for that sort of stuff, it'll look like I'm disguised in a fat suit.