Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Magnificent Fish at Dengkil Seafood Restaurant

Malaysians have a tendency to not think twice to travel large distances when the food is good. They will happily all pile into a couple of cars with no more than an address in a distant town and the promise of a friend that the food at this place is off the map. Though it does often turn out to be nearer the truth that it is the restaurant itself that is off the map, with much frustrating time spent telephoning the restaurant from the car to get directions to the place. But it all ultimately gets smoothed over and tempers calmed when the group is sat sated and full and the instigator of the expedition can bask in the glory when everyone vociferously refutes the original claim that the food is, indeed, off the map. 

Mee Hoon
I find these food safari adventures generally not fun and go along on them with feelings of dread and trepidation. The loss of control of where we are heading is like my comfort blanket being ripped from my clutches. The control freak in me likes to know where we are going and equally how we are going to get back. In this, the Garmin GPS in the car has been a godsend - well, most of the time except when it sends you off into some tropical rainforest wild road with the soft Californian female voice insists on recalculating everytime you take a different turn that you think is better. Switch you off, dear - go and recalculate that. 

Nothwithstanding, normally it is safe to say I do not like to travel too far for my food.  I still prefer a fast drive across town to get from table to bed within fifteen minutes. The prospect of a hot sweaty one hour drive along strange roads to an uncertain destination is not one to be relished. 

But the Dengkil Seafood is an exception. Located about forty minutes south of Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur near the airport and easily reachable along the wonderfully straight MEX Highway, Dengkil Seafood is a treasure to be found and delighted in. Indeed, the reason we found it was in order to avoid an expedition to eat fish at some distant outpost of the old Empire recommended by a friend that would have taken two hours to reach. When we explained our predicament, the Good Doctor told us about Dengkil Seafood. This was about a year ago and we have been there about ten times in the interim and introduced it to many friends who have also become regular visitors and introduced THEIR friends. The food is consistenly good and often outstanding.

Kampong Chicken
The most recent excursion had us doing two nights in succession at the restaurant. The first had been booked some time ago to treat overseas friends whilst the second was a replacement for a raincheck we had to call due to the pair of us getting slammed with a nasty chest infection. Getting stuffed twice in two nights at the same restaurant in addition to driving forty minutes plus to do it. This was a serious first. 

The first night saw seven of us having wine and three types of noodles - the Hokkien Mee, the La La Mai Fun and the Ban Mee. We also had the potato leaves, Patin fish and the castrated chicken. This procedure apparently makes the poor deknackered bird grow large and fat, presumably as a consequence of being no longer inclined to perform his roostering duties in the henhouse. Maybe, but what a price to pay and you end up on a plate anyway.  Not sure if the same logic applies to men. Better not to give the darling partner any ideas here. 

The price paid by the chicken equals the price paid for it by the consumer. It is seen as a speciality and one that needs to be paid for. We have had it on previous occasions when it proved to be a firmer bird than your average KFC broiler. Leaner, firmer, but still tender meat that presumably got salted overnight. Our quarter of emasculated chicken got eaten and savoured but somehow didn't inspire gasps of total delight from the assembled. Perhaps we were not sure of what we should be looking for in the dish. It was fine, just not magnificent and perhaps we didn't know why. All enjoyed the food enormously, especially the Patin and the Pan Mee which had the little crunchy bits of deep fried lard, the Siew Jie, which give a delightful fat bite to the noodle. Pan Mee is the Malaysian Chinese equivalent of linguine and various prawn and pork and veggie bits in a rich brown sauce. Scoop it up with a touch of chopped garlic and you have a mouthful for the ages. Soul food, as real as it gets. Got everyone's top vote.  

Potato Leaves
Our second night proved more of a party. Originally there were to be eight of us, but someone added one and someone else added one and suddenly we were up to twelve. Qjuite a mixed bag, but all with one thing in common - a liking for good and tasty food washed down with a decent drop of wine. This could get fun.

The wines that everyone had brought were various, though enough of a range to keep everyone drinking something - two ladies stuck with a sweet Moscato all night while the rest of us started with a racy Chilean SB from Nam Lee Cheong (can't remember the name - something like "Off The Planet") before tucking away two bottles of 2011 Vicar's Choice Sauvignon Blanc from the Saint Clair winery. The Vicar's Choice had smoother balance of fruit and acidity with softer fruits than the grapefruit sharp Chilean. But both were lovely drops that refreshed the mouth and spritzed up the palate. 

First food out was the potato leaves. These are quickly steeped in hot salted water and served with stewed garlic and have a soft green feel. Bit like a spinach, but bigger leaves and stems. Not too chewy but with a little crunch to bite, it's a good way to get some early iron and green vitamins and minerals into the system. 
Pan Mee

Second up was the Kampung Chicken. In contrast to the bird of the previous evening, this one tasted incredibly good. Itt had a firm texture yet was still wonderfully succulent. There is a tendency to oversalt the skin wth the Ajinomoto, and that would be a criticism here. Even so, not a bad chook. Was okay with the SB but a Chard would have done better.

Third up was the Pan Mee, which was as good as the previous evening's serving. The better noodles are made fresh from flour and water and these were excellent - good bite and not powdery.  Supper of champions. 

Some of us were moving to the reds as the Tung Po pork came out. This is more Northern Chinese and is deep braised pig and skin in gravy and traditionally eaten with bread. It is excellent in the Restoran Esquire Ktichen chain where the gravy is more brown and meaty and richly thick. Honorable mention also to the Tung Po at the Pik Wah  - sweet and sour and delicious. Dengkil's Tung Po was a bit disappointing, tasting of cherry pop sauce and mostly fat. Very tasty, in a pig fat kind of way, but more like a gunky pigfat sandwich than a meaty chew. 

YC had opened his Big Red which proved a metallic, gunpowder, smack in the face explosion of alcoholic cassis and black fruit. Can't remember the name. Massively big, but not overly so, the bold yet even tannins cut the sweet sauce to produce a taste that somehow made sense - a cherry pig fat sandwich with a full mouthful of fruit forward wine. 

Tung Po Pork
There was also the remnant  of a Sandalford 1997 Cab Sauv that had been inherited from the Datin at the office which had been opened for a couple of days already. A glass had been passed to our Tai Chi Master who had no complaints and it did indeed taste well. Excellent balance, even tannins with firm blackcurrant and plum producing a full lingering finish. 

We were still sipping the Vicar's Choice when the restaurant brought out the fish. It was a whopping Soon Hock steamed to tender and sweet perfection that melted into salivatory perfection as soon as it hit the tongue. The flesh had that tender firmness that lets you bite and squeeze at the same time to release the juices. The zippy salty soy and electric crunch of the cilantro garnish did amazing things with the sweet fish meat - a complex melange of tastes across the tongue and palate that excited and delighted. It didn't need any wine to match, thought the Vicar helped in washing the salt off the tongue in preparation for the next teasing mouthful of the fish. Totally stellar.

Soon Hock Yee
For info, the Soon Hock is a river fish that is a river bottom crawler, and not a very energetic one at that. Known as the Marbled Sleeper, this South Asian swimmer can reach up to two feet in lengh. It is a hugely popular fish dish thanks to its sweet white meat and fine softly firm texture According to Wikipedia, it may have healing qualities and promote longevity - and fetches high prices due to high demand and variable supply. Well, and maybe on this one. The Doc says that much of the Soon Hock in the restaurants is of the farmed variety. Dengkil seafood prides itself on serving only wild catch rather than farmed fish. And indeed there is a difference. The farmed fish available in Kuala Lumpur have a generally firmer texture whilst the wild ones in Dengkil have a sweeter softness about them. The Patin we had the previous evening was lovely in a fish oily kind of way. But the Soon Hock remains clear fish dish of choice. You pay for it, but absolutely worth what you pay. Possibly some of the best fish you will ever taste.

Turtle Feet
Friend YC had apparently been salivating about the next dish for the previous week leading up to the dinner. He had been texting Lenglui in excited terms about it, so perhaps my expectations had become a bit heightened. As it was, the Turtle Feet came out to a somewhat muted welcome by the table, due possibly in part to the fact that everyone was still pretty ecstatic over the fish. Everyone looked at the dish with a mix of curiousity and apprehension. Most of the table didn't seem to know what to make of it. Turtle is one of those dishes that generate mixed responses. Some refuse to eat on principle because it is endangered and everyone has seen a movie where the animated Turtle talks like a teenager and is too cute to eat. Others would say, hey it shows its back to the sun, therefore it is edible. I'm somewhere in the middle - try most things once for experience but only eat where enjoyable. This presentation was a bit visually strange - it was partly dark and partly light, and distinctly unappealing from a visual perspective. Dirty looking meat is never attractive, and a few people indeed shied away from this one. Served in a rich sweet gravy, the addition of brocolli and garlic did give helpful splashes of colour. But it did still look an edible challenge. 

Close the eyes, chopsticks in and…  hmmm.  The taste was….   okay, I guess. Texturally somewhere between a soft chicken and a firm wagyu and tasting a bit smoky. The beefy fruit and chestbeating alcohol of Big Red went excellently well with the smoky meat. But turtle for me showed itself as not really a taste to be soon repeated. Not quite enough to satisfy for some reason; neither big in the belly nor full in the mouth. Must be an acquired taste, though not an immediate one demanding to be cultivated. YC seemed happy enough, though.

On the home stretch and out came the lightly fried mee hoon. Tossed with spinach, beanshoots and dried prawn, the chef seemed again to be overgenerous with the Ajinomoto seasoning - it dried out the tastebuds. A bottle of Robertson Chenin was opened to rehydrate the tongue, which it did admirably.

Chicken in Rice Wine
The opening of the Chenin turned out to be quite prescient as the kitchen brought the Chicken in Rice Wine to the table. The broth was lovely, tasting of cheek pinching vinegar and sugar cane with hints of spice. The meat was very firm and lean almost to the point of overcooked, and seemed to taste more of Frog Leg rather than chicken. A superb dish, made all the more delightful by getting paired with the Chenin. For the second time, this wine has paired excellently well with a sour soup dish (previously at Onsemiro with the Chicken in Ginseng). The mildly bland texture works nicely with the Rice Wine, cutting and softening the sour alkilinity without diminishing its power to stimulate. At the same time, the broth allowed the charming almond notes and rosepetal in the Chenin to come forward.  An offering of the Chenin to the table got greeted with grunts of refusal - everyone was sticking with their red. So it goes. Must definitely get some more of this wine. Quite versatile.

The kitchen had saved the Suckling Pig for the last for some reason - normally it would be third or fourth out. Whatever, it came out to thunderous applause and flashing cameras getting whipped out to snap the baby porker in all its suckling glory. Tastewise, there is better to be had at other restaurants, most notably at the Marco Polo in Kuala Lumpur. The skin was nicely salted with good firm texture and crunch between skin and fat. Perhaps a bit too much skin adn not enough fat and meat, though it was still well prepared and not overdone. 

A bottle of La Boca 2009 Merlot had got opened by this time which proved to be a mistake - too mild and thin to follow the Big Bad Cab, So another Australian Cab, Johnny Q or something, which had been brought by our friend the Geezer got opened to finish the night. Not bad, full mouth, not too tannic, nice finish and with that boldy acoholic body that marks out a muscular Aussie wine. The Merlot and Chenin got recorked and taken home. 
Suckling Pig

There were a couple of birthdays and Lenglui had brought a chocolate cake to celebrate. We ended up toasting three birthdays and scarfing down all of the chocolate cake. Barely a crumb was left on the plate. Everyone clearly needed some chocolate carbo to end the night. 

In sum, wonderful fish and chicken in rice wine, pan mee and potato leaves. Good kampung chicken and mee hoon, Pork dishes so so. The fish dishes are clearly the stars of the restaurant and they do them extremely well. The rest was okay. Perhaps because it was s full house on a Sunday evening then maybe the kitchen was a bit stretched to get the food out. Certainly the mee hoon has been better on previous visits. The suckling pig was a first time and was acceptable whilst the cherry sweet Tung Po pork was a new experience but unlikely to be repeated. Prefer the richer sauce and more meaty Tung Po in Kuala Lumpur. 

Happy Diners!
So another expedition to Dengkil in search of restaurants that we can happily recommend to friends as a "must go" came to an end, and we basked in the praise of our friends that the restaurant food was indeed wonderful and definitely worth the trip. There was a bonus in all of us paying some 25 to 30% less than one would normally pay for similar banquets in town. Conventional wisdom holds that success eventually goes to a restaurant's head and sooner or later either quality or quantity dips as the prices rise. As a result it is better to enjoy these places now as they may not maintain in the long term. I hope Dengkil holds itself in quality terms and the food remains off the map for a long time to come. The chef clearly cares about the fish he serves and they are prepared conistently well and expertly. I would be happy if Dengkil Seafood could remain off the map completely and save this place for ourselves. But that is unfair. Good food and great places should be shared. Good luck in finding it.

Somehow I inherited the leftovers mee hoon, the turtle and the pig head, and ended up passing them to Alex, our home handyman who had come to repair a leaky aircon unit. He seemed very happy. Free food. Of course he is happy, it is free food and something out of the ordinary. Must find out if he liked the Turtle. He won't be getting any more from me. 

Photos kind courtesy of Jan Shaw.

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