Malaysia is located so far from here most of my friends couldn’t point it out on a map. But lucky for us, Ohio just welcomed its first Malaysian restaurant right outside Cincinnati. In the belly of an old municipal building in Mason is the new restaurant Straits of Malacca. Driving to the exotic feast took almost 30 minutes from the city, but it was well worth the effort to consume such flavorful dishes and chat it up with a chef who helped design the menu.
The restaurant offers three different menus: lunch (Tiomon Café), happy hour (Blue Intan) and dinner (Langkawi Spice). All share similar dishes, the happy hour menu being the smallest and featuring just a selection of appetizers. We went for a Saturday night dinner and heeded their recommendations to make reservations.
The host greeted us in a hallway dotted with plump red chairs and wide staircases lining opposite sides of the walls, and then promptly escorted us to our table, leading us through a beautifully furbished dining area. We walked past a tall metal wine rack and a small art installation that resembled a wind chime of blue spoons. Photographs of familiar ingredients like ginger and colorful spices alongside foreign fruits like the mangosteen adorned the tan wall tiles.
Even though they’ve only been open a few weeks, Straits of Malacca already has its liquor license so you don’t have to worry about corking fees. I ordered a glass of cava ($6) because when you don’t know how to pair with unfamiliar ingredients, get sparkling.
We started our meal with the baked pork buns ($2.99). Two small rolls, one filled with barbeque pork, the other with pork floss. The pork floss was, as our server said, basically shredded pork jerky. The bronzed dough was sticky on the outside and soft inside. While the shredded pork floss tasted OK, the barbeque pork bun’s flavor won us over with its savory, sweet and juicy insides.
For my entrée I chose the Corvina ($23), a chunky fillet of white fish encrusted with a savory cilantro kesom crust, surrounded by seasoned cooked okra, red peppers and eggplant, pineapple rice, then finished off with beet foam. Now, I’ve eaten many a beet prepared in various methods: baked in sweet desserts, roasted in a hash then tucked under a fried egg, shredded on top of salads — but never foamed. The delicacy the beet lent to the hearty fish brought the plate together as a rug does a living room. The plating was beautiful. Every component was thoughtful and groomed like the hedge of a well-manicured lawn. The server even drizzled a little of the spicy tamarind sauce on the fish and left the boat next to my plate.
My friend ordered the Rack of Lamb ($29) and paired it with a cabernet sauvignon ($8) at the suggestion of the bartender. The tender lamb was saddled with a tatsoi salad, aloo ghobi, lentil curry and house-made lingonberry chutney. The cauliflower and potatoes in the aloo ghobi were left with enough dignity to maintain some bite to the tooth and were seasoned perfectly. The lentils, usually my favorite legume, were more sandy than smooth and had a sharper flavor than the rest of the plate.
The dessert list was short but packed with delicious-sounding combinations like Egg Tarts with kiwi coulis ($5) or Mango Rice ($5) with sweet rice and coconut sauce. We chose the dessert special, Kuih Talam ($5). Three little molded mounds of green, snow-capped, white, dense paste topped with coconut shavings with a smear of palm sugar proved a refreshing dessert with delicate vanilla flavor and pound cake-like consistency.
The best part of the experience was talking to Chef Paul Liew. After we plowed through the dessert and sipped on the last of our booze, he explained the concept of the restaurant and his history in the kitchen, which began as a child trying to recreate delicious meals he and his mother ate while dining out. He’s been cooking ever since, advancing to cook in five star hotels, then moving to the states five years ago. Although the dishes are presented in a French style, he retains the traditional flavors of his hometown.
Straits of Malacca
Go: 202 W. Main St., Mason
Hours: Lunch: 11a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Happy Hour: 3 p.m.-5p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday