The Malay Café helps make the Northland an ethnic-dining destination.

Malaysian Persuasion 

The Malay Café helps make the Northland an ethnic-dining destination.

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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.

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