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Straits of Malaya, Chef Lawrence Tan in South Adams Morgan - Your Alternative to Lauriol Plaza - Closed


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It being a wonderful evening last night my friend and I were looking for a place to dine outdoors. I had not been to the Straits for some time and looked forward to the flavorful dishes that I remebered, while sitting on the rooftop overlooking 18th Street and that much maligned and crowded place across the street.

We had the 5 Spice Roll for an app, which when eaten with the accompanying sauce is a good way to start. It could have been taken out of the fryer a minute or two earlier as it was slightly overdone.

For our mains we ordered the Chicken with Basil (#4) and the Bawang Sambal Udang with shrimp (#11). The shrimp dish is described as being cooked in a sauce of chili and tamarind with onions and carrots. Unfortunately this dish was very bland with none of the expected tang from the tamarind. The chicken dish, a stir fry mix of chicken, water chestnuts, carrots, green beans, and basil. It was pleasant with a slight bit of heat that was unexpected from the description, but welcome. The addictive puffed shrimp chips were served with dinner.

4 beers, 1 app, 2 entrees and the total w/o tip was $64. I was disappointed as I remember things as being more consistently prepared and flavorful. Has anyone else been lately? Was this just an off night?

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Has anyone else been lately? Was this just an off night?

I haven't been lately, but I went one additional time after I wrote this glowing praise last year:

There are some things in life you do because you have to, and there are other things you do because you want to. For all the dozens of meals I don't comment on, I want to share one that was exceptional.

The servers at Straits of Malaya are fantastic, and completely without pretense. They care about the diner, and perhaps more importantly, they care about the owners. One man introduced himself, and we ended up talking for about fifteen minutes. He shared one of the most heartwarming stories I've ever heard from a stranger, the story speaking volumes of good things about him, about the owners, and about the restaurant.

Another man there told me, "We work as a family here - a dysfunctional family sometimes, but still a family."

An older Malaysian woman brought my food and asked me if I was familiar with Malaysia, talked with me for awhile about the geography there, then introduced herself and shook my hand.

Nobody there had ever seen me before. This was a caring staff showing a genuine interest in a random customer who strolled into the restaurant off the street.

As I sat alone on the rooftop deck at Straits of Malaya, I looked across 18th Street at Lauriol Plaza, crowded as always, and I honestly began feeling sad for them. I wanted to cast a fishing line over there, hook somebody - anybody - and reel them in, asking them what on earth they were doing over there.

The food could have been merely decent and I still would have loved my meal. But what am I supposed to think when it shows up, and it's perhaps as good as any food within "that genre" I've ever had? Though I understand "Straits food" is culturally and geographically distinct, this was on the same level as the great Thai Square in Arlington. How can stir-fried dishes be so clean and so complex and so delineated? Honestly, I sat there, about ten minutes into the meal, alone on the deck, and muttered an obscenity out loud, because I couldn't believe what I was eating, and I think I said something similar about ten minutes later, because I still couldn't believe it.

You've got to go, and you've got to go this week. Here, let me take your hand:

1. Leave work early on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday

2. Get to Straits of Malaya at 6 PM. You're running out of good weather, and this is your last best chance for rooftop dining.

3. Sit out on the deck, bringing a long-sleeve top or light jacket to wear as the sun begins to set (and, unfortunately, a tolerance for mosquitos)

4. Order a Tiger beer (perfectly serviceable - compare with Singha)

5. Enjoy reading the entertaining anecdotes and notes from the owner on the menu

6. Correct my mistake of omission and order an "Acar" appetizer with their fine complimentary basket of shrimp chips - my guess is that this would be a terrific match, though the shrimp chips stand just fine on their own.

7. Order number 8 (shrimp) and number 12 (chicken). Don't worry about what they are for now, just order them, and ignore the "hot and spicy" comment which simply isn't true.

8. Sit back, relax, and smile, knowing that life cannot possibly be any better than this.

You're going to love this place!

The next time I went was on a Sunday night, and I had a terribly disappointing meal: everything was off, and I felt like a fool for having written what I wrote above. But sometimes all it takes with a restaurant such as this is for one cook to be absent, perhaps for several consecutive days, and the kitchen falls apart. There are three places I've written about in the past year that have apparently experienced Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome: Straits of Malaya, El Pueblo in Burke, and Bangkok 54 in South Arlington. These things happen sometimes, and when they do, the chasmal differences between visits are generally not dreamed up in the mind of the uncertain diner; they are stemming from the restaurant itself. This is why professional food critics will visit a restaurant multiple times (often three) before reviewing it. I propose that even three visits is not enough, not even close, to really know a restaurant, but that's another topic for another thread and another day. But it's STILL better than gloppy Lauriol Plaza.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I went to Straits for the first time two weeks ago to enjoy a rooftop meal with a friend. I'd heard great things about it and was looking forward to the food (and eating on a roof - heck, I'll admit that!)

My opinion? Overall, the food's good but the food at Malaysia Kopitam is better. The menu's extremely limited for a Malaysian restaurant - where's the satay, nasi lemak and roti? Those are staples in a Malaysian restaurant. Also, the food's very expensive for what it is - I guess they can charge that much given the area they're in.

We had the rojak, popiah and a chicken dish that tasted like stir fried tom yum chicken - all were pretty good. Solid cooking but not stellar.

I guess for me, since I've to Malaysia and ate Malaysian food for a good part of my life, I don't think Straits is all that and a bag of shrimp chips. Granted I only went there once - and Rocks is right, you need to visit a restaurant multiple times to get a true picture and a real feel for the place - but I wasn't wowed looking at the menu or eating the food. But it's a good neighborhood joint and a better value than Lauriol Plaza.

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Not a fan and was shocked when Don wrote that. Living in the neighborhood and having great memories about the previous incarnation, I wanted to love it. Over priced and just not impressive. However, in that area with a rooftop deck a restaurant does not have to excel.

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I've only been there once, so can't say my opinion is based on a representative sample, but from what I recall, it was entirely unmemorable. Serviceable Pan-Asian food without any character the likes of which can be found in any strip mall, USA.

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I've only been there once, so can't say my opinion is based on a representative sample, but from what I recall, it was entirely unmemorable. Serviceable Pan-Asian food without any character the likes of which can be found in any strip mall, USA.

The only good thing about the roofdeck at Straits is the great view of Lauriol Plaza! Since LP is taking a gratuitous slam, I'll chime in-LP is what it is and always has been-a very popular mid-priced neighborhood restaurant. A restaurant owner I know always exclaims, "Chips and Salsa! How do you make a million dollars on Chips and Salsa?" But, on the other hand, Straits had its day 10 years ago when it was unique. Once people in the neighborhood caught on, it was a ghost. The big draw was Larry (the owner). and his Mother, who sadly passed away.

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Maybe the owner's Mama's death has had something to do with the drop in quality (or interest)? It happens.

I never understood Phyllis Richman's touting of Lauriol Plaza when it was where Rosemary's Thyme is now. Raul Sanchez, one of the co-owners, first started a restaurant on Columbia Road (where Mantis is now), called "La Plaza", which had the best crab-stuffed flounder EVER. That stuff was just delicious. And, it was quite affordable. It was a lovely place, and he took great pains to make it so; however, it was small.

Because of Richman, my DH and I went to Lauriol Plaza ONCE. I had the flounder there. It wasn't as good and was much more expensive than at La Plaza. At some point, La Plaza closed and became the first in a succession of restaurants (India 2000????).

This is the problem with independently-owned restaurants: decisions are made for reasons other than the quality of the food; e.g., family considerations or just a hard look at the bottom line. (As an example, the "Omega" on Columbia Road. It was the best-known of the Cuban restaurants in Adams Morgan and was family-owned. I heard some things about the second generation. All I know is that there was a "judicious" fire which gutted the place and it didn't re-open. There are NO Cuban restaurants in AM anymore. The space was split up and became a dry cleaners and The Grill from Ipanema.)

There is a line in Jamaica Kinkaid's book, "My Garden (Book)," where she states, "When a gardener dies, the garden dies."

Let's just wish Michael Landrumm, Frank Ruta, Tom Powers, etc., long and happy lives.

And, let's hope the owner of "Straits of Malaya" will be directed to this site. That is, if he actually cares.

Barbara

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I worked in the kitchen at Straits for nearly a year ending in late '99 - not long too before it closed. I eagerly returned as a customer when it reopened and had a similar experience as many. The food was fine, but bland and uninspired. Certainly not close to what it used to be - which was really something different and fun (if I may say so myself - ha!)

I peeked in the kitchen and saw only unfamiliar faces at the woks. I haven't been back since - and after the comments posted here, I think I will skip giving it a second try. I enjoy the food at Penang and at Malaysia Kopitiam - and will stick with them.

I always thought that the menu was way overpriced and it still is - more so since the food isn't nearly as good.

Mama's passing was very sad. She was a very sweet woman who would often bring up drinks for the kitchen crew. I agree that the restaurant was run like a family - dysfunctions and all. I don't believe, though, that Momma's death is the direct reason for mediocre food. She did not speak English (or the kitchen's more prevalent Spanish) and was not particularly involved in the kitchen - other than to visit now and again and grab a bite to eat. Chef Lawrence Tan (although Larry's Lounge was named after him, he goes by Lawrence,) was occasionally in the kitchen, but it was his partner and the restaurant's business mgr, Ken, who kept the kitchen standards constant and was the one giving feedback to us about the food. I chatted with him briefly and he didn't seem like his old charming 'Mayor of 18th Street' self either. Kudos to Barbara for sharing the gardening quote - very true for family/neighborhood restaurants.

From the Straits kitchen window I watched the new Lauriol Plaza be built. I was a regular at the old location on S Street, but have stayed away (when I can help it) at the new place. Same reasons as everyone else. OK food. OK margaritas. Too many people - not worth the effort.

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Tonight my panda bud introduced me to Straits of Malaya.

When we arrived at 6ish the place was nearly empty, and per our server's offer, we picked a deuce in the back against the wall. Not surprisingly, I was tickled by the juvenile panda faux finishing (and the obscure statement made by the panda raising a bottle of Miller Lite with glee), though, the place itself could be about 15 degrees warmer and I'd prefer David Bowie to the Chopin that fused from overhead a touch on the loud side.

So, what?

The food!!!

I took the empty dining room and our server's preemptive defense (explaining that he was working the room all by himself) as a warning and leveled out my expectations. But everything was great, and I'm thrilled to have made an acquaintance with this place. Our server, Dave, was as nice as can be, and made us feel welcome and carefully consulted us before taking plates away (I know, I'm greedy).
Since the panda pictured on the wall was drinking Miller Lite, we decided to be cheap and gross like him, and went for Amstel.

I'll admit to being hungry, but the complimentary pastel-colored rice cakes (puffed shrimp cakes, I believe), were delicious.

For first courses we had Rojak ($5.95), a thoughtfully assembled plate of veggies (cucumbers, carrots, jicama) dressed in a tangy soy sauce-based dressing, topped with peanuts, and the prizewinner of the evening, Sayur Goreng ($5.95), a plate of lightly battered veggies, deep fried and served with a piquant sauce. I'll tell you this. It's been a long time since I've gotten that much pleasure from a dish that cost under $6. The Sayur featured broccoli, sweet potatoes, hefty green beans, onions, etc., lightly battered in Popeye's very own peppery fry batter (ok, fine it wasn't but these veggies had a twang of Popeye's, I tell ya) and served with a perfectly spicy brown mystery sauce. It was the kind of dish where each bite had a different pleasing texture (the head of the broccoli being a prime example). I'd go back for those two and gross beer on a whim.

For mains we went for the Curry Chinese Eggplant with Tofu ($13.95) and the Tofu Goreng Berempah ($13.95). Both were as sweet as they were spicy, and their flavors opened and expanded as they cooled. The Goreng Berempah was tofu in a sauce made from coconut milk, onions, veggies and spices, and it worked nicely to balance the earthiness of the curried eggplant dish, which was also based in a coconut milk sauce, but was spiked with cumin, fennel and other of curry's partners in crime. And shit, the carrots in there were like Amernick's carmels. They were sweet and soft with a single karat of gold on the top.

No dessert for my distended belly, but I look forward to returning and eating more of those vegetables (that taste like candy). In all fairness, the food I ate tonight deserved a glass of wine (and I secretly missed duck).

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I visited Straits of Malaya for the first time on 3/9/06 after a show at the 9:30 Club, and had a near-perfect experience. My girlfriend and I got to Straits around 9:40 p.m. and we were the only customers in the restaurant (barring the group of ladies paying their tab as we were being seated). We got the table in the bay window overlooking the street and observed what seemed like thousands of people at Lauriol Plaza eating competent but unremarkable Mexican food, and quietly took pity on them.

The waiters were very pleasant and went out of their way to emphasize that they take a "team approach" to service, meaning that diners can ask any server for assistance as needed. They checked on us regularly, ensuring that the food was to our liking and that our water glasses were never low. They even brought us bonus iced coffee because, according to a waiter, they had "made extra."

We ordered two appetizers and an entree. The "rojak" is a small salad of cucumber, pineapple, carrots, jicama, and crushed peanuts doused in a sweet brown sauce. It is very much akin to the achar salad at Malaysia Kopitiam, though smaller, not quite as good, and more expensive. That said, it was perfectly fine, and I would order it again.

We also ordered the "acar," which, based on its name, should be the equivalent of Malaysia Kopitiam's achar salad, but is more like a Korean panchan in size and taste. The acar is a small bowl of pickled cucumbers, carrots and cabbage that have been sliced to a near-julienne state and submerged in a soy sauce that is more sweet than salty. The acar is served with shrimp chips, which are pastel-colored and have the consistency of enormous Rice Krispies. Interestingly, the shrimp chips make a satisfying "snap, crackle, pop," noise when you let them soak for a minute in the acar bowl. The acar suffered for its similarity to the rojak; next time, I'll order the rojak and skip the acar.

Our entree was the curry Chinese eggplant with tofu. The restaurant advertises it as its "signature dish," and rightfully so. It was easily the best curry preparation I have had in a year. The dish, which came out hot enough that we had to let it sit for a few minutes, is served in a large bowl from which multiple diners can serve themselves. Fried tofu cubes, chunks of eggplant, and fingers of sweet potato swim in a brownish-yellow coconut-milk curry with a mound of moist rice in the middle, slowly absorbing the curry sauce. The eggplant was heavenly. It was soft, sweet, and given a slight kick by the curry. The sweet potato, a personal favorite, but a vegetable that suffers if prepared hurriedly, had been allowed to tenderize to the point that each piece had enough consistency to survive the chopstick journey, but then practically melted in my mouth. Divine. And the tofu serves as a sponge for the coconut milk, making each bite rich and satisfying.

We ate until our stomachs hung out "No Vacancy" signs.

This was my first visit, and I know that Don feels that Straits of Malaya is uneven, with good food dependent upon a particular cook being in the kitchen. But, based on my experience, that's a chance I'm just going to have to take, and soon.

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Our entree was the curry Chinese eggplant with tofu. The restaurant advertises it as its "signature dish," and rightfully so. It was easily the best curry preparation I have had in a year. The dish, which came out hot enough that we had to let it sit for a few minutes, is served in a large bowl from which multiple diners can serve themselves. Fried tofu cubes, chunks of eggplant, and fingers of sweet potato swim in a brownish-yellow coconut-milk curry with a mound of moist rice in the middle, slowly absorbing the curry sauce. The eggplant was heavenly. It was soft, sweet, and given a slight kick by the curry. The sweet potato, a personal favorite, but a vegetable that suffers if prepared hurriedly, had been allowed to tenderize to the point that each piece had enough consistency to survive the chopstick journey, but then practically melted in my mouth.  Divine. And the tofu serves as a sponge for the coconut milk, making each bite rich and satisfying.

What a great post, Demvtr. This is one of the dishes I had last week, and while it was the best course of the evening, it was still gloppy and blah, so much so that I didn't take the leftovers home.

If you look at Meaghan's January 16th posting, you'll see yet another opinion on that dish - I was her "panda bud" that evening, so I can vouch for her enthusiastic review.

My guess is that this place is a winner five nights out of seven.

Cheers,
Rocks.
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For those of you that may be interested, Straits of Malaya is offering a cooking class on June 3.

now he is once again offering a few 4-5 hour cooking classes in his home on Saturdays or Sundays.  The next class will be on Saturday, June 3, 2006, from about 10:30 am to 3pm.  The class will show you how to prepare some of the dishes at the Straits of Malaya in your home kitchen.  The classes are limited to ten participants.  You will learn to identify and use the spice and other ingredients and where you can purchase them.  You can participate in preparing the meal that will be shared by all participants.

The price per person is one hundred dollars, including dinner and wine.  You will receive written recipes for the dishes you prepare that are scaled for a family kitchen.  Additional classes will be offered later if you are not available on June 3.

Send an e-mail to larry@straitsofmalaya.com if you are interested.

Oh - and while my signature happens to be Larry T., I can assure you I am not Larry Tan of the restaurant smile.gif

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BUMP!

We made out INAUGURAL visit to Straits this evening. Two people who have never eaten "Malaysian" food before tonight.

All those complaints at other places about having to wait for service didn't apply here. We ordered the 5 spice roll and the acar. They came out in a jiffy. These were both very suprising and good. The acar were just like the shrimp chips in other places; but the side dish of stuff to put on them was kind of a revelation. Very refreshing. I don't know what to make of the 5 spice roll. It was slices of a sort of meat loaf wrapped in something. The accompaniments really added to the experience. It was a very tasty. Had we known, we would have realized that these two items were too much for just two people. Too bad our mains showed up before we were finished with appetizers. :blink:

Since Dame Edna considers coconut in all its permutations inedible, finding something without coconut milk was a bit trying, so he went with the Tamarind Chicken. I got the #8. The shrimp was a little undercooked, surprisingly, but it was otherwise an interesting dish. At almost $18, I considered it a bit overpriced. The chicken was a bit dry and the whole dish bland ($14). So Dame Edna helped himself to a shrimp or two and discovered that the dish contained those little, bitty ears of corn. I was happy to share. I also suggested that he use some of the sauce that came with the meat loaf to "enhance" the flavor of his dish. Neither one of us could begin to finish our plates, which meant that there was no room at all to try the fried jackfruit for dessert.

Two apps, two mains, and three beers, plus tax and a generous tip, came to $78. A bit pricey for a casual, nobody wants to cook, Sunday dinner at a local trattoria. However, given what we have learned this evening, this could well be a LAME DUCKS outing for a group. Knowing how to pick through the menu would be a real help here.

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Friday dinner at Straits of Malaya. I really like their Curry Chicken with Chinese Eggplant--it's not a "wow" kind of dish, just sort of an Asian comfort food with pleasing flavors. Contrast that with the Chicken with Basil which is much spicier than expected, and a bit short on either of its primary ingredients, but still tasty. The service here tends to be confused (they forgot our appetizer until after they delivered the entrees) but looking out at the cell-phoned hordes crowding the entrance of Lauriol Plaza, I am glad to put up with these glitches and enjoy the Straits' small pleasures (not least being that two dishes can feed at least three people amply).

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Friday evening, 6:00pm, 70 degrees and sunny. Perfect time to grab a beer and a snack outdoors somewhere before meeting friends for dinner later. Noting that this is one of the first Friday evenings of the year with truly glorious weather, I anticipate that roofdecks and patio-side dining areas will be jammed all over the city. I recall success in years past with the roofdeck of Straits of Malaya and hope we can manage to score a table. Fears of overflowing patios are confirmed at numerous restaurants passed on the walk from the metro. Geez, there is already a line outside Lauriol Plaza.

We ascend to the top of the stairs at the Straits, hoping we will be lucky. We see at least a dozen perfectly set tables gleaming in the early evening light. One table in the back over by the rail is taken.

Two Tiger beers, one order of Five Spice rolls and several handfuls of shrimp chips, all is well with the world. Service was attentive and friendly. The place did fill up a bit over the course of the 45 minutes or so we spent enjoying the sun. The Five Spice rolls were very good, if unexpected in appearance. A description of "Malaysian meatloaf" is appropriate. The accompanying dipping sauce, with a nice amount of chili-based spice, is a must for the dish.

I've yet to eat a full dinner here, but it is really hard to top their roofdeck on a nice day - and it is easy to pity the hordes jamming LP across the street.

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Despite the clanging of construction (someone was building a deck next door) we had an enjoyable meal on the roof top deck at Straits last night. Went with three apps, the curry puffs, five spice roll, and rojak, and split an entree of the chinese eggplant and chicken curry. First time at Straits and I thought it was solid and worthy of return.

only "complaints" would be the tables on the deck are jammed together and as noted below, the service, while friendly, does get a little confused. But hey, you're getting tasty inexpensive food on a lovely roof deck with little wait...unlike across the street. so really, why complain.

Bill was $60 for two (with tax), but we had a couple Mai Tai which at $9 each jacked up the tab.

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