That's why I was intrigued when I came across Gourmet Garden (膳園) in Hendon. On the outside, it looks like a suburban Chinese restaurant but among the everyday Anglo-Chinese offerings, its menu features a wide selection of dishes from Malaysia and Singapore. Most of these are Malaysian Chinese with the odd Malay dish.
The Big Dish
馬來棧焗蟹 Fried crab with sambal belachan (seasonal price apx £20)
Visitors to Malaysia and Singapore will be familiar with the likes of chilli crab and black pepper crab. However, I've never seen crab prepared this way before despite belachan, a pungent fermented shrimp paste, being a common ingredient in Straits cuisine.
Frying belachan with chilli, minced garlic, shallot paste and sugar makes sambal belachan, the basis of the gravy in this dish. And what a gravy, already fiery and shrimpy, it was further enhanced by a generous helping of dried shrimps (har mai 蝦米); an ideal accompaniment to the perfectly cooked sweet fresh crab.
Gourmet Garden's boss explained that as well as being their signature dish; this style of crab is quite unique to her restaurant as it is their very own creation. Served as an intermediate course, it was the highlight of the evening. Looking back, I should've asked whether they had any deep fried Chinese buns (mantou 曼頭) to dip into the rich gravy.
|Teochew ngoh hiang|
|Kweh pi tee|
潮州五香 Teochew ngoh hiang (£4.30)
香脆金杯 Kweh pi tee (£4.30/4pcs)
阿榨 Achar - Malaysian pickled mixed vegetables (£3.80)
My favourite starter was the ngoh hiang, minced pork & prawns wrapped in beancurd skin then deep-fried. This was served sliced and was liberally laced with five-spice powder (五香粉) from which the dish's name is derived. Kweh pi tee are dainty crispy pastry cups filled with vegetables and topped with a prawn and these were OK. I wasn't that impressed by the achar but I'm not really a pickled vegetable kind of guy.
海南雞 Hainanese chicken w/house chilli sauce (£5.80/qtr)
干咖哩牛 Rendang beef (£6.90)
椒絲腐乳通菜 Fried kangkong w/fresh chilli & fermented beancurd sauce (£6.50)
叻沙 Singapore laksa (£6.00)
I fear that my impressions of the Hainanese chicken were spoiled by the recent memories of eating this dish in Singapore. This dish demands that the bird be just cooked and whilst it wasn't overcooked, it just didn't seem as juicy and moist as the version at Boon Tong Kee.
The spice level of the rendang beef hadn't been dumbed down and it had a reassuring kick. Unfortunately, the meat wasn't as tender as it could be but this is a common problem with 'slow-cooked' dishes in restaurants. The kangkong (morning glory) was perfectly adequate but with hindsight, I would've preferred it stir-fried with belachan rather than fresh chilli & fermented beancurd.
There was plenty of chicken, fried tofu, prawns, fish balls, and rice vermicelli in the Singapore laksa. So it was quite ironic that this generosity slightly spoiled the dish as the noodle-soup balance was all wrong. With so much 'stuff', there just wasn't enough spicy coconut soup to go round. That said, I thought it had the right level of heat and I shouldn't really complain about big portions.
With two bottles of wine, rice and a pot of tea, the bill racked up to £116.30 including 10% service charge between three. This may seem expensive but we probably over-ordered and did have two bottles of Chablis (£20.50 each). If you strip out the booze, the food costs apx £24/head, which is damn good value.
What The Others Thought
Joining me for dinner was Kake and Bellaphon. The latter has been dubbed in certain circles as a misguided self-important contrarian rebel. Personally, I think 'narcissistic iconoclast' sums him up better. I'm also not sure why he's been singled out, as some of us work bloody hard to be contrary (but not misguided or self-important) and for Bellaphon to earn that reputation without really trying, sticks in the craw. For this meal though, it was his expertise in his native Malaysian cuisine that I was seeking out rather than his perceived character flaws.
There was much consensus around the table but there were a couple of points of disagreement. Being more of a spice-fiend, Bellaphon thought the laksa was a bit tame and he needed some extra chilli sauce. Whilst Kake is a big fan of fermented bean curd and was quite happy with how the kangkong was prepared.
About The Restaurant
Gourmet Garden sits aside six lanes of traffic on the A41 and is accessed from Hendon Central station via a piss-streaked underpass. However, don't let that put you off visiting this fine restaurant, as it's only 25 minutes by tube from Euston.
The boss, who like the chef is from Kuala Lumpur, has run Gourmet Garden for the last eight years and her pride and passion in the food they serve is clear for all to see. I was impressed with how she dealt with the multicultural clientele in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Overall, service was a cut above with that personal touch, which is characteristic of quality local restaurants.
The suburbs have been a happy hunting ground for me lately and I really enjoyed Gourmet Garden. The fried crab with sambal belachan was simply amazing and whilst the other dishes didn't quite hit the same heights, there's a lot to like about this restaurant. If you're a fan of Malaysian Chinese food then it's well worth checking out.
Gourmet Garden, 59 Watford Way, Hendon, London NW4 3AX (Tel: 020-8202-9639)
Nearest Tube: Hendon Central
For more on Malaysian food, I highly recommend that you go to 3 Hungry Tummies, Test with Skewer and House of Annie for their 'Muhibbah Malaysian Monday' feature. Each month, they take it in turns to round-up the best of Malaysian on their respective blogs.