Island Hopper offers diverse cuisines
91 Massachusetts Avenue
Malaysia’s population is remarkably diverse, and its cuisine very much reflects the influence of the Malays, Indians, Chinese, Eurasians, and various other peoples who call the country home. I learned a little about this country from a few natives who accompanied me on a recent visit to Island Hopper, the new South Pacific restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue. Professed regulars, my companions were eager to confirm the authenticity of the offerings here -- which also include Singaporean, Indonesian, Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese specialties.
Just three months old, Island Hopper is eager to please. The interior is warm and inviting: colorful Indonesian shadow puppets give the dining room an exotic flavor, while the multicolored lamps suspended from the ceiling add a touch of IKEA. Though the formica tables are cheerless, the bar is pleasant enough. The waitstaff is quite friendly and accommodating, if a little inexperienced.
We began with the roti Island Hopper, their take on roti canai, a light, crispy, and puffy crÊpe accompanied accompanied by a small crock of tasty chicken curry. Sotong goreng is the Southeast Asian version of calamari, and here it is a marked improvement over its Western cousin: a light, tempura-like batter coating each tender, slightly spicy piece of squid. I preferred the sambal chile dipping sauce at the table over the pepper and diced onion sauce that came with the dish. These dishes are both commonly sold by street vendors in Malaysia, and were definitely the best part of our meal, deeply satisfying in their savory simplicity -- Asian comfort food, indeed.
The drinks, however, weren’t all that impressive; the limeade lacked the zestiness of PhÔ Pasteur’s version, and the “awesome passion” mango smoothie was rather unmemorable. Both were cloyingly sweet.
For the main course, the Kari chicken didn’t quite measure up to the more robust curry that came with the roti canai; it was a bit on the bland side. The chicken, however, was cooked properly - not overly dry, as it tends to be at many Indian restaurants in the area. Unfortunately, the chunks of potato were slightly overcooked, and consequently, rather dry and mealy. I found the grilled salmon dish underwhelming; it was dense, salty, and fishy and reminded me somewhat of Goosebeary’s. I’m a strong believer in using a light hand with salmon to preserve the rich, fleshy texture and clean flavors inherent in a really fresh fish. The kangkung, a green leafy vegetable known also as water convolvulus, was tasty sautÉed in belacan, a pungent shrimp paste. The char kueh teow was excellent, the best of the entrÉes. These flat rice noodles with shrimp, squid, egg and bean sprouts stir-fried in a soy sauce base are authentic and comforting. The Thai-style pineapple fried rice didn’t suffer from the oiliness and saltiness that plague so many other versions of fried rice in the area. Tangy pineapple chunks lent a welcome bit of island flavor to the scallops and shrimp, while the cashews added a pleasant crunch. The dish would probably work better with a different rice grain, as the texture of the jasmine rice suffered from the additional cooking. Island Hopper also offers versions of phÔ noodle soup, pad thai, and udon noodles, as well as sundry Chinese restaurant standards.
For dessert, the fried ice cream was satisfying, but not particularly inspiring. I was really surprised to see crÈme brulÉe at the top of the dessert menu, but the server recommended it with such enthusiasm that it might be worth trying on a return visit. With such reasonable prices (main courses run about $8 to $15) and superb food, a return visit will be inevitable.