The Malay CaféCafe Express,

Up, up and Malay 

Kansas Citians have a whole new world to discover in the Northland.

I don't know how long it would have taken me to stumble upon the Malay Café in Kansas City's Northland if a reader, Dr. James Waddick, hadn't e-mailed me a few weeks ago. He praised the two-month-old restaurant's Malaysian food but ended with a caveat: "Try it, but don't tell anyone."

Now that I've become infatuated with the peculiar charms of this tiny restaurant, I know what he meant. Sharing the secret of the Malay Café doesn't just mean it will be harder to snag one of its vinyl-covered tables on a weekend night -- it means worrying that this single, hardworking family's operation will become so busy that the food and service might suffer. But word will inevitably spread about this friendly, cozy place that covers a distinctive, previously unexplored culinary territory in Kansas City.

After my first dinner at the Malay Café, which is tucked between a Pier 1 Imports and a Honeybaked Ham Company in a shopping strip on Barry Road, I wanted to know more about Malaysian food. So I called the well-traveled Richard Ng, owner of the Bo Ling's empire, who had just returned from a vacation to the Malay peninsula's capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

"It's probably the first true fusion food," Ng told me. "Malaysia is a land of three very different cultures: The Malay are predominantly Muslim, Hindu Indians and Chinese. The food is a mixture of those cultures, with almost no pork dishes to be found but wonderful things you can buy at the outdoor markets, like grilled satés or noodle meals made with fresh coconut milk and local herbs. It's very similar to Thai food."

After several meals at the Malay Café, I'd hesitantly agree. Some dishes share with Thai food a love of lemongrass, basil, hot chilies and curries. But Malaysian fare -- at least the kind prepared here -- is slightly sweeter and so rich in tropical flavors and so unabashedly sensual in texture (crunchy, crackly, supple, silky) that if they allowed smoking in the dining room, you might choose a postcoital cigarette over the coconut flan.

But smoking is forbidden in the dining room, which is painted yellow and decorated with travel posters and Malaysian gift-shop artifacts. And so is pork; the owners -- Allison Lim, her husband, chef Sam Yim, and brother-in-law Steve Yim (who can be heard but not seen shaking sizzling pans back in the kitchen) -- do not eat it. They have riches of seafood, though, as well as luscious chicken creations and a surprising number of red meat offerings given that beef isn't as popular in Asia as it is in America's Midwest.

The Malay Café's Borneo Steak is named for the mountainous island southeast of the peninsula, but you could find a comparable steak anywhere in Kansas City. Harder to track down would be a bowl of, say, steaming Laksa Lemak, fragrant with lime juice, onion and curry.

This restaurant's excellent assortment of appetizers ranges from the familiar chicken saté to the completely unexpected. The Green Paw, for example, was a crisp leaf of cold lettuce containing a dollop of chopped hot garlic chicken and crushed peanuts sautéed in a piquant bean sauce. Allison warned me that the chili paste's dull red pulp (made with fermented shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, lime, chilies and tamarind) had an unpleasant fishy aroma, but I spooned a little of the fiery stuff onto my "paw" and savored the combination of icy green lettuce, sizzling chili paste and tangy bean sauce.

My dining companions weren't quite able to ignore the sharp fragrance of the chili paste and reached instead for the milder among the four other dipping options: a thick peanut sauce, a glossy sweet-and-sour concoction, a perky sweet chili blend and the same watery hot mustard you find in any Chinese restaurant. I had brought along my friend Bob (who isn't a fan of Asian food) and Debbie, who has traveled through Malaysia and tells a compelling story of being wrapped in pythons at Penang's famous Snake Temple. Disappointingly, before our meal started, she had only this to offer regarding her dining experiences there: "I recall the desserts as being terrible." For Debbie, the horrifying snakes had erased any culinary memories, so she seemed oblivious when we sat down and the server placed a teacup filled with cold, canned garbanzo beans on the table. "In Malaysia," Allison told me, "people eat these all day long, like peanuts."

"I should remember that," said Debbie. "I do remember eating saté, though."

And so would we, after pulling grilled bits of chicken breast off of skewers and swirling them in the Malay Café's peanut sauce. Even better were the golden coconut shrimp, which had come jumbled around a splash of deep-orange mango-and-cantaloupe sauce. Tender, chewy slices of fried fish cake, however, needed the punch of the stinky chili paste.

Bob, usually wary of unfamiliar cuisines, eagerly sampled every appetizer that passed in front of him and all but hoarded a communal bowl of the amber-colored hot-and-sour shrimp soup. This brew was so potent with ginger, garlic and lemongrass that just inhaling the steam rising from the china bowl was as head-clearing as the first spoonful, which bubbled with pink shrimp, bamboo shoots and button mushrooms. It was such perfect cold-weather soup that I returned the following day to fetch some for a sick friend, who downed a bowl and announced that she was "cured."

Even more healing was a pale broth of roasted chicken, mushrooms and carrots simply called Herb Soup. "It balances the yin and yang," promised Allison, who then watched me from the corner of her eye, presumably to see whether I seemed more centered after my third spoonful. I certainly felt balanced enough to finish a heaping plate of saffron-colored nasi goreng, dappled with roasted chicken, carrots, tomatoes and peas, before reaching across the table for pieces of Bob's basil-flavored beef. (He was busy admiring the artistic presentation of the yellow steamed rice speckled with nuts, peas and raisins.) Debbie ordered a vegetarian dish, Malaysian Garden, a pile of sautéed vegetables shining under a blanket of gloppy ginger-flavored sauce. "It's a very clean, fresh taste," she said, noting that her pre-Snake Temple food memories were miraculously returning.

"The awful dessert I ate was made with sweet potato and tapioca!" she blurted. I looked over the menu and spied that very delicacy, Bobo Chacha, alongside much more enticing choices -- which I ordered with abandon (the herb soup had clearly gone to my head): coconut flan, peanut pancake, Malay Parfait! To hell with tapioca, I say, when you can dip into a snow-white flan, rich with coconut milk, or a frothy scoop of house-made pineapple ice cream perched on a thin stack of sweet crêpes scattered with peanuts. The piece de resistance was a blue glass goblet stacked with two scoops of the Yims' own ice cream -- pineapple and kiwi -- layered with roasted coconut and whipped cream.

The Yims use traditional Malaysian fruits -- except for the country's treasured durian, which reportedly tastes like heaven but smells like hell -- for their ice cream. "We have customers who ask us for it," Allison said of the durian. "We can get the frozen fruit. But the smell is too strong. It would turn other customers away."

That's an aroma the members of this restaurant family -- who work every day, remember customers by name and make each dinner individually so that dishes arrive one at a time instead of all at once -- don't need. The tiny Malay Café has the sweet smell of success about it.

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