Kaya Malay Bistro

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by Ed Lau on January 30, 2013

I find that the dining experience in most restaurants is tailored for tables of four or less. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule like the large 10-18 person round tables at Chinese seafood restaurants or the long communal tables in some newer, hipper establishments but for the most part, finding a place that can accomodate a reservation for 14 people without tearing the place apart or squishing everyone at an obviously-too-small table proves to be difficult. Sometimes restaurants have private rooms for just this situation but they usually hold 20+, sometimes have a higher cost associated and most of the time, you’re away from the atmosphere of the restaurant. Usually when I’m faced with having to book a table for a large party, I just head to Twitter, ask what restaurants is able to accept half a football team and pick from the ones that respond.

On this occasion, my friends and I headed to Kaya Malay Bistro, a new-ish (I believe they opened in the latter half of 2012), modern take on Malaysian cuisine located on West Broadway. The look is on one hand stark and contemporary and on the other hand, warm and traditional, with Malaysia and Southeast Asia inspired lanterns, statues and decor.

It works and looks great for the most part, although I thought the weird, clear curtains sort of made diners by the window look like they were sitting in a shower.

The menu is a mix of traditional Malaysian and Malaysian fusion. Prices can be generally broken down as noodles/rice at around $10, seafood at $20 and meat dishes somewhere in between. We couldn’t decide so we trusted our enthusiastic, cheerful servers put something together for us. We paid as a set menu but the prices listed below are for a la carte.

This isn’t one of the ten but I’m loving this trend of restaurants serving you a little amuse-bouche drink like we saw last time at East is East. This is a ginger citrus soda, made with fresh orange, lemon and lime juice, soda and either basil or mint. I’m not a big fan of ginger but here it works with the basil for a bit of a herby note to go with the tangy, fizzy juice. Very good. A regular sized one goes for $4.

Otherwise, the drinks menu has a nice, interesting mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages like this mango smoothie ($5), which looks thick and packed with enough mango that I could probably hold that mason jar upside down.

I tried a couple of these Blue Buck beers, which is crisp and really well balanced, slightly sweet. There are drinks specials every day of the week.

We started with a couple of vegetarian appetizers, which would normally be against my beliefs but there’s plenty of meat coming up. The vegetarian samosas ($6) have a nice, rich curry flavor and the pastry is excellent and crispy. Could’ve used a bit more filling but a pleasant way to start us off.

The vegetarian spring rolls ($6), made with marinated jicama root, green bean, celery, cabbage and carrot, were just as delicious. Great consistency with the filling. An effort was made to keep things crunchy and substantial. Nothing’s worse than spring rolls made with stuff sent through a food processor.

You know satays ($1.50 each) are good when the meat has a nice char on the outside but remains moist and juicy everywhere else. You can taste the marinade in the chicken.

Our server really sold the roti canai ($6. $7 for whole wheat) and she wasn’t kidding. The pieces are slightly rolled up and lightly pan fried, which results in very crispy bits at the top and soft, fluffy goodness in the middle. Yes, I know that describes pretty much all roti canai but the fact that they scrunch it up a bit first makes the difference. Try it and you’ll see what I’m on about.

The Hainanese chicken ($8 for a quarter, $14 for half) was…not bad. I’ve had better in Vancouver but at places that really specialize in this sort of thing. The chicken is moist, even the white meat and goes great with the accompanying condiments and oil rice. Weirdly, you can get this roasted. Is it still Hainanese chicken if it’s roasted?

The Rendang Beef ($14) is rich and brimming with spices. The chunks of brisket stewed in a coconut milk curry until incredibly tender. Soak some rice in that sauce and go to town.

Yes, you’re right, we haven’t seen any vegetables other than the garnish since the first appetizers. I’m usually not a fan of green beans but you can’t go wrong with the sambal green beans ($10 main, $6 side). Tossed with Malaysian shrimp paste and fresh tomato, they’re crisp and snappy, the natural flavors enhanced by the punchy, savory shrimp paste.

Speaking of things I’m not a fan of, I hardly ever order laksa ($9) but all my friends love this stuff. The broth is actually lighter than it looks and they haven’t gone overboard with the coconut milk. This Singapore-style laksa has tiger prawns, chicken, bean sprout, egg, and fish cake.

On the other hand, one of my favorite Malaysian dishes is the mee goreng ($10) and they make a very good one at Kaya. The fried egg noodles are tossed with beef, egg, shrimp, tomato, bean sprouts, green peppers, and tofu. Even the tofu is packed with flavor and it’s spicy without getting too hot. Great Malay comfort food right here.

We all turned down the warm mango durian puff ($7) because, although it comes with ice cream, no amount of mango can overcome the smell of durian. The stuff smells like death’s bathroom…although I wouldn’t say it smells like a natural gas leak as some folks thought recently at Yaohan. C’mon, white people…

And I’m rather glad we did because the Kuih Dadar ($6) is delicious.

I love coconut and this handrolled crepe, flavored with pandan juice and stuffed with grated coconut steeped in Malaysian palm sugar…is all sorts of coconut awesome. It’s sweet but not overly so and despite looking like a rolled up napkin, it gets checkmarks for flavor and texture.

Summary: Kaya Malay Bistro has a lot of potential and, judging by the quickly filled dining room, it’s gaining in popularity. It’s not hard to see why. The staff is friendly, attentive and service is generally quick although the pause between the appetizers and the chicken was a little longer than I’d prefer. The food is delicious and dishes, especially the rice and noodles at around $10, are a great value. One dish is more than enough for lunch or dinner but if you want to get the most out of your Kaya experience, order a whole bunch of dishes with your friends and share.

Kaya Malay Bistro on Urbanspoon

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