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Restaurant Review: Penang

By Daniel Metz

Penang

685-691 Washington St., Boston

617-451-6373

Entrees: $4.25-$17.95

Malaysian cuisine, which at its best skillfully blends the unique flavors of India, Thailand, and Indonesia, can be a great treat for the Western palate. Penang, a popular Malaysian restaurant on the outskirts of Boston's Chinatown, often handles the delicate fusion of these cuisines with great skill, although on a recent visit the kitchen's performance was somewhat mixed. Still, most people will find it's worth a visit.

Penang is a casual and unpretentious place, with the eclectic combination of modern art on the restaurant's red brick walls complimented by bamboo canopies and railings, creating a warm atmosphere that contrasts with the restaurant's drab neighborhood. Brightly lit water tanks filled with tempting fish, crabs, and lobsters greet visitors as they enter the restaurant, which was packed for lunch on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Penang features a diverse menu with prices to fit anyone's budget, and a variety of dishes to match anyone's palate, from the conservative (Cantonese Chow Fun, $5.95) to the adventurous (fruit salad with shrimp paste sauce, $5.25; fish head curry, $14.95; Chicken Feet Casserole, $7.95). But be warned:This is not a particularly vegetarian-friendly restaurant, especially given the Malaysians' proclivity for using fish sauce and shrimp paste as basic flavorings. In fact, only two of the ten items in the "Vegetable" section of the menu did not make an explicit reference to some form of meat or fish.

Many of the appetizers on Penang's menu are more expensive than the average entree, though the ones we tried were worth it. The most interesting of the lot was the Baby Oyster Omelette ($6.95), a very simple three or four egg omelette filled with plump, juicy oysters, served on a bed of lettuce with fresh coriander garnish, but accompanied by an overly-sweet sauce. This dish is for oyster lovers only, as the pungent flavor of these little bivalves will turn some people off completely.

The appetizers came to our table sequentially, with just enough time between each for us to finish one off before the next arrived. Though probably an accident, this turned out to be a nice touch, as each dish came to the table piping hot and fresh. Arriving after our omelette was the Pandan Chicken, a simple dish of chicken breast pieces marinated in soy sauce and deep fried. They were attractively presented, each piece wrapped tightly with a strip of green screw-pine leaf and served with crisp Malaysian crackers, but they were a little too dry and not very flavorful for $5.95. Unlike the case of the omelette, the fiery hot and sour sauce that came with the chicken was an essential accompaniment that saved the dish from being completely dull.

Finally, we shared a generous plate of beef satay tender, flavorful beef skewered and grilled just enough to impart a wonderfully smoky flavor to the meat without overcooking it. The satay was served on a banana leaf with red onions and cucumbers, which created the perfect texture contrast to the tender meat. But the peanut sauce, which I've come to crave on almost any visit these days to a Thai, Malaysian, or Indonesian restaurant, was a disappointment thin and overly sweet, with limp bits of cooked onions where crunchy crushed peanuts should have been. Luckily, the satay was enjoyable without it.

There is more to fusion at Penang than the combination of food styles from different areas of South East Asia:It's also about combining diverse flavors within individual dishes, a tricky feat for any cuisine. Penang's kitchen pulled this feat off masterfully on one of our entries, not quite as successfully on another, and on a third well, let's just say my previous visits give me some hope that it was just a bad day for that one.

Let's start with the best. Curry Mee with Young Tau Foo is an enormous bowl of soup and an outstanding value at only $5.75 that artfully combines spicy, fish, coconut and sweet flavors. The two different types of meaty, hearty noodles that fill the bottom of the bowl aren't even visible at first. To get to them you first have to dig through wonderful, spongy little fish balls, flavorful fish cakes, big pieces of fried tofu, a sweet, meaty fried banana (trust me on this one, it works), and crunchy bean sprouts. Not to mention the coconut milk broth which, when you mix in the roasted chili paste that sits at the side of the bowl, is an aromatic, tangy wonder. If you have the willpower to leave some of the tofu pieces for the end, they provide a great sop for this truly delicious broth.

The Nasi Lemak ($5.95) tries to do for a dry entree what the Curry Mee did in soup form. The dish consists of a mound of coconut rice surrounded by small piles of different flavors and textures: hot (in the sense of warm; it was not nearly spiced enough) curry chicken, a cold anchovy and chili accompaniment, a cold vegetable mix of carrots, pickled cucumbers, and green beans, and a hard-boiled egg. Despite a valiant attempt, the accompaniments couldn't save this dish from the disappointing chicken, which should have been its centerpiece.

In fact, we soon realized we'd made the mistake of ordering lots of this chicken in the Penang Dried Curry Chicken ($8.95). This curry was not dry at all (dry curries can be blissful, made all the more tender and flavorful because they are cooked over low heat long enough for all the liquid to evaporate and the flavors to incorporate deep into the meat), but rather grisly, fatty, and underspiced, with the skin still on the chicken. This mainly dark meat curry almost spoiled what was otherwise a fine meal. Stay away from it.

Based on several more successful visits to Penang in the past I trust this restaurant to handle my cravings for those great, complex fusion flavors, and it's going to take more than some disappointing chicken to keep me away. Great flavors and great deals abound on Penang's menu. So the next time you're heading to Chinatown for a meal, try some fusion cuisine, South East Asian style.