I've had a lot of disappointing meals out recently. There's nothing in the world that will sap you of vitality quite like a meal that promised great things and delivered very little. There are various factors that can contribute to a poor restaurant experience, and naturally these will vary depending on the diner. Some people are extremely fussy about tablecloths, background music, or the availability of branded hand wash in the toilets. I, personally, am fussy about portion size, service, balance and the dessert menu.
That is, portions have to be generous, and this INCLUDES starters and desserts (one of my biggest restaurant bugbears is tiny desserts - some people save space for them, you know!
); service has to be attentive and friendly, but not obsessively asking if everything is OK every five minutes, and it's definitely a no-no if I've booked a table and the restaurant claim to have no record of it; the dishes have to be well balanced, with enough carbohydrates to complement the meat/fish/vegetables or enough acidity to temper a very rich ingredient like duck or cheese; the dessert menu has to include proper desserts, like crumble, tart and pie - not
like creme brûlée or panna cotta, which I consider a pointless waste of calories.
Several of these issues have been involved in my restaurant trips recently. I've had distinctly average pizza, incredibly bland and stodgy 'Asian' food, a delicious but overly rich duck dish which even the beetroot salad couldn't rescue from cloying, two consecutive experiences at the same restaurant where they lost my booking, a lacklustre bowl of 'Thai-flavoured' mussels...all these recollections are hurting me a little. I'm going to stop.
All these dishes were obtained from perfectly respectable restaurants with good internet reviews, which had promised much. Despite the unimpressive food, I've at least learned something: a nice facade, branded hand wash in the toilets, friendly staff and a good ambience are no indication of good food in the restaurant world.
I haven't quite got out of this 'don't judge a restaurant by its peripheral attributes' mentality, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Penang!
, a new Malaysian restaurant in Westfield Shepherd's Bush, London. Its location in one of the biggest shopping centres in the UK, its cheery yellow and blue exterior, the exclamation mark at the end of its name, a pain to use in reviews because readers will constantly think I'm joyously exclaiming at them, its slightly odd on-purpose-bad-English on the menu, with titles like 'Little dish for big smile' or 'fun food on stick!'...all these attributes left me somewhat confused, a tad sceptical as to what the food would be like.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to eat one of the best meals I've had in a long time at Penang!
Penang! does not claim to serve authentic Malaysian cuisine. Rather, it hopes to bring Malaysia's blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Thai food to the mass market, to introduce some of the classics of the Malaysian street food scene (the 'capital' of which is Penang, the Malaysian coastal state) to British palates (which sometimes necessitates the toning down of what is a very spicy cuisine). While we consider ourselves pretty au fait with Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine in the UK, you don't find much Malaysian food.
The Penang! brand has chosen for its ambassador the character of Mr Zuhri, a 'Malaysian ex-rockstar'. His caricature decorates the menu, and his 'voice' gives a little introduction to each of the dishes. On the back of the menu is Mr Zuhri's handy guide for helping you decide what to eat - simply choose your mood from a list such as 'You no like it hot?', 'You want no meat?' and 'You look for much healthy dish?' and he offers a list of suggestions. While no one could argue that this was sophisticated, it did - against my better judgement - raise a wry smile from me as I perused the menu, which I imagine is the point. It's certainly a memorable dining experience, with your every glance at the menu set to the backdrop of the imaginary Mr Zuhri's garrulous exclamations, and while the whole thing is somewhat gimmicky, I'm willing to forgive them that, as the food is excellent.
The restaurant is bright and airy, a cheery yellow, with a casual set-up: the menus, on brown paper, are on the tables and also serve as placemats. The cutlery (both chopsticks and knives/forks/spoons) stands in holders on each table, along with chilli and soy sauce. There are small plates - as the menu is really designed to be shared, you can order several dishes between your group and help yourself to your own plate. There were lots of families eating at the restaurant when I visited, which perhaps explains the jokey Mr Zuhri aspect - given its location inside a major shopping centre, it does a good job of catering to all tastes and ages.
The menu is divided between small sharing dishes ('Little dish for big smile') and 'Big bowl plates': one-bowl main meals like laksa
, steamed sea bass and grilled marinated chicken. There are also satay skewers ('Fun food on stick'), sides (roti, rice, greens, prawn crackers), and desserts. Wanting to try almost everything on the menu, we ordered seven of the small sharing dishes so we could try a selection. I did notice, though, as we were giving the waitress our order, that at around £4-7 each it would easily get very expensive to order three or four of these small plates, particularly when you want to eat everything on the menu. However, as you'd probably order just one curry (£6-7.50) and several of the smaller dishes (around £4), it might still work out fairly reasonably. It is
London, I suppose, and the menu does cater for those on a budget by offering the option of a 'big bowl plate', starting at £8.50 for laksa and peaking at £12.50 for a sirloin steak.
I don't normally do pre-dinner cocktails, but if it's a mango mojito I might make an exception. Fortunately just such a thing was on the Penang! menu - a delicious blend of lime, rum, sugar, mint and mango purée. It tasted dangerously like an Innocent smoothie, and I could probably have had three. (And then passed out on the tube home). The 'Penangoska', a blend of lemongrass vodka, fresh lime and mint was also intensely refreshing, though not quite as flavoursome as the mojito. There are several other cocktails as well as a fairly comprehensive wine list.
This is a food blog, though, so here's the stuff you really care about. I apologise for the slightly odd lighting in the photos - restaurant lighting is never particularly camera-friendly, but hopefully you get the gist.
We had two Malaysian curries: ikan assam pedas
, which was a very spicy sweet-sour salmon curry, with a strong lemongrass flavour and nice crunchy vegetables; and the classic beef rendang. The rendang was my favourite dish of the entire evening: the beef was so tender you could pull it apart with chopsticks, and it was cooked in the most exquisite sauce, sweet and rich and slightly tangy, fragrant with coconut and lime. I would have been happy with a plate of that on its own, with some steamed rice (which was also very well cooked, and came in its own little bamboo pot). It's in no way a glamorous plateful, given that it is entirely brown, but don't be put off by this - the flavour is intense and delicious.
We also had two smaller dishes, often key components of your standard noodle bar menu: gyoza - thin steamed dumplings with a deliciously tender and juicy prawn filling - and salt and pepper squid, which was gloriously crispy with a spicy, peppery hit. The gyoza were perfect little parcels, slightly chewy with a wonderful fragrant filling, accompanied by a salty dipping sauce. They're one of the healthier-tasting options on the menu, but still very flavoursome.
The squid was incredibly tender - very hard to achieve with squid - and still tasted juicy and of the sea, not overwhelmed by its peppery batter. It achieved that rare thing with deep-fried food: to be crunchy and crispy but in no way greasy or cloying.
Nasi goreng, the classic Malaysian fried rice dish, had a good texture, with crunchy vegetables, slightly chewy rice and huge meaty prawns. It was very moreish and savoury, in that way fried rice always is, and was a good side dish to accompany the other treats on the menu, though it might be a bit samey to eat on its own, which I imagine is why it appears as a small sharing dish rather than a one bowl meal.
Another highlight of the menu was the itik
, a steamed white bun filled with crispy hoi sin duck. This was exactly like cha siu bao
, the Chinese barbecue pork bun, but with duck instead. The bun was perfectly fluffy, and its sweet, meaty filling was delicious. A wonderful contrast of flavours and textures: crunchy spring onion, soft duck, delicate chewy bun...I could have eaten several of these.
Finally, to cleanse our palates, a pomelo salad. I discovered this incredible salad in Vietnam, and the Penang! version did not disappoint, although I'm not sure about the inclusion of tomatoes - the salad itself is so sweet and acidic that the tomatoes are a bit overpowering. There were juicy chunks of sweet pomelo (like a larger, much sweeter and less acidic grapefruit), crunchy leaves and a delicious sweet-sour dressing, with the crunch of peanuts. It is a fabulous addition to a meal otherwise rich in carbohydrates and strong, meaty flavours, offering a refreshing burst of flavour. There are other salads, like mango, available too, which I really like - sometimes you need a dish that is fresh and vibrant to balance the heavier, saltier, richer noodle dishes and curries of Asian cuisine.
The menu recommends 3-4 of the sharing dishes per person, and this seems about right - after seven between us, we were comfortably full. I couldn't resist a dessert, though, since the menu looked so appetising. It's rare for Asian restaurants to offer proper desserts, so I was truly enticed by the prospect of ginger and lemongrass cheesecake, mango pudding, chilli chocolate mousse, or fried banana with ice cream and coconut sauce.
We had the fried banana and the ginger cheesecake. The banana fritters, for so they were, came with creamed sago and a scoop of ice cream. The fritters were delicious, the ice cream lovely, and the texture contrast with the sago was interesting. I'm not really a fan of sago and rice pudding-esque things, though, so it wasn't really my thing. I imagine children would love it though.
The cheesecake, however, was one of the best I've ever had at a restaurant. It was a huge portion - appreciated - of baked cheesecake, with a thick, rich, creamy texture, a crunchy biscuit base, and the most delicious sweet, citrus flavour. It was studded with small pieces of sweet stem ginger, the preserved kind you get in syrup. I've never tried a cheesecake like this before, and now I can't wait to recreate it. Some people might find the portion a little overwhelming, but I'd much rather have too much on my plate than too little. There was quite a lot of cheesecake compared with biscuit base, but again this is not really a complaint. It was gorgeous, one of the most indulgent desserts I've had in a while.
None of the food we ate was particularly fancy. Some of it wasn't much to look at, either - it's hard to present beef rendang, which is all one colour and texture, in a very dignified and elegant way - although the duck bun in its own steamer was a nice touch. But every single dish was delicious, satisfying, and unusual. It looked like food you want to eat - nothing too artful, just presented nicely in a way that invites you to dig in. There is something for everyone on the menu - light fish dishes, rich aromatic curries, healthy noodles and stir fries, grilled meat, soups - and every dish is wonderfully different, bringing its own great combination of textures, flavours and spices. Given that Malaysian cuisine is not about fine-dining faffing around with garnishes, the presentation and design of the dishes makes perfect sense. It's about sharing, digging in, and having a good time without any pretentiousness.
The atmosphere, menu and staff at Penang! reflect this perfectly. Our waiting staff were very helpful and friendly, frequently topping up our water glasses, something often forgotten in the rush of busy service in most restaurants. The atmosphere is informal, full of people just having a good time and enjoying the food. The menu - its organisation and content - I think perfectly encapsulates the whole point of Penang! - to bring Malaysian street food to the masses. It may not be authentic, but it's a delicious change from the tired Thai and Chinese food we find all too often on the high street. Everything tasted like real effort had gone into each individual dish, rather than the mass-produced feel you can get from some chain restaurants. I hope that as it expands, Penang! doesn't lose this somewhat quirky charm.
Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Penang! Thank you very much to the kind people at Penang! for my meal at their restaurant. I look forward to returning some time in the future.