MASON, Ohio - Each Thursday, our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.
Straits of Malacca
- Where: 202 W. Main Street, Mason
- Website & Facebook
- Food: Authentic and Fusion Malaysian food
- Prices: Langkawi Spice (fine dining) $13-34; Blue Intan (Tapas) $4-9; Tioman Café (Street Food) $5-9.
Many recognize the Straits of Malacca as a narrow stretch of water separating peninsular Malaysia from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Not many know it is also the namesake of a Malaysian restaurant, nestled in the heart of Mason.
The restaurant tempts adventurous eaters with authentic Malaysian food. It also offers fusion dishes with a definite Malaysian soul. The owners invite you to taste your way through its three distinct dining spaces:
- Tioman Café
- Blue Intan
- Langkawi Spice
Tioman Café serves up Malaysian street food in a casual, no-fuss space. Noodles and rice dishes show abundantly on the simple menu, not unlike what you would find on the streets of Malaysia. Char keuh teow is hands-down the best seller at the cafe.
This stir-fried noodle dish of bean sprouts, chives and large shrimp, has a distinct toasty aroma, attainable only in a high-heat wok.
Another favorite, nasi lemak, is a grown-up confetti of flavor, texture and visual contrasts. Fluffy rice, slowly cooked in coconut milk, arrives with its accoutrements: Beef rendang (a type of dry curry), pickled vegetables, anchovies dressed in spicy tamarind sauce, a hard-boiled egg, and peanuts.
Blue Intan offers a decidedly grown-up space, replete with cozy tables and chairs, with the bar taking center stage. The tapas menu features Malaysian favorites like satay. Grilled bite-size skewers of chicken or beef, are served with a savory, and slightly sweet and spicy peanut sauce.
For a different kind of spring roll, try the poh piah. It is a delicate wrap that vaguely resembles a slim burrito. A savory mixture of braised jicama with shiitake, chicken, shrimp, bean sprout, egg, cucumber, lettuce, chili, and hoisin sauce gently fill this soft, paper-thin wrap.
There are plenty of finger-food choices--like curry puff, samosa and roti canai, a flat bread that's uniquely chewy, buttery and flaky all at once and served with a curried lentil sauce. The curry puff is a flaky turnover, filled with curried chicken and potato. Spiced ground lamb and peas, bundled in a thin, crispy wrap form the samosa. This tasty treat stands out with its accompanying creamy mint sauce.
Langkawi Spice showcases an international approach to fine dining, while maintaining its Malaysian identity. Look for the winter scallops, a composition of pan-seared scallops with taro and shrimp risotto, served with warm string bean salad, over roasted cauliflower & spinach puree with ginger, cilantro, and lime cream.
You'll also find many entree choices rooted in rice and noodles, such as mee siam (spicy stir-fried noodles) and nasi goreng kampung (aromatic fried rice).
The menu at Straits of Malacca is refreshed quarterly, to keep things fresh and seasonal.
Meet the owners
You should pay close attention if you strike up a conversation with Alvin (above left) and Paul (above right) Liew.; they are twins. The Liews, along with their two sisters, own Straits of Malacca.
Paul is the chef, and Alvin serves as the general manager. One of their sisters, Susan Giovengo, leads marketing and administration.
The brothers were born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, which bustles with more than 1.5 million people.
"The city doesn’t sleep. The food scene is 24 hours," Alvin Liew said. "Growing up in Kuala Lumpur is like growing up in a giant food lovers' country.
"Malaysians are spoiled for choice. People can have anything anytime," Paul Liew added.
Neither Paul nor Alvin thought they would one day own a restaurant in the United States. In fact, both of them seriously considered becoming priests. Fortunately for diners, they got into the food industry instead.
Alvin trained with the Les Roches International School of Hotel Management . After gaining experience at various five-star hotels in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, he rose to the rank of Food and Beverage Director.
Paul dug into the kitchen side of the industry. He opened restaurants for himself and others. Passion Road, his signature restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, catered to an illustrious clientele, including dignitaries and heads of state.
Then, in 2007, Paul won the immigration lottery and reunited with his sisters in Cincinnati. Alvin and his family came two years later.
Although Paul was a kitchen veteran, he took on various jobs in local restaurant kitchens to learn about restaurant operations in Cincinnati. It didn't take long for him to work his way to Jean-Robert's Table .
"Jean-Robert welcomed me into his kitchen and basically gave
me the chance to learn whatever I wanted," Paul said. The two remain friends today.
After much preparation, the Liew brothers opened Straits of Malacca in September 2012.
Malaysian food is a tasty melting pot of cuisines. The country's leading ethnic groups--the Malays, Chinese and Indians--all make culinary contributions. The more subtle influences come from the dinner tables of Europe: France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
"To describe Malaysian food is a challenge; there's so much to talk about," Alvin Liew said.
Breakfast alone unleashes enough options to light up the world map. The Chinese might gravitate to morning staples like congee, buns, or even fried pastries. The Indians rely on flat breads like roti canai served with its multitude of curry sauces, or even idlis (rice and lentil cakes). The Malays might reach for nasi lemak (coconut rice) or roti jala (a lacey flat bread) served with a curry sauce.
The food at Straits of Malacca reflects this culinary tapestry. The use of Indian spices like cumin, coriander, and ginger is evident. High heat cooking and soy sauce definitely point to Chinese traditions. The Malay influence can be seen in the use of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and coconut milk.
"Malaysians never really stop eating," Alvin said. Paul and Alvin said in unison, "Malaysians live to eat."
By the way
Straits of Malacca offers teh tarik ("pulled" tea), a beverage authentic to the Malaysian street food experience. Sweetened hot black tea is mixed with milk, and frothed by pouring the mixture between two canisters. The longer the pour, the more it has the appearance of the tea being "pulled." The back-and-forth action cools the tea down and creates a luxurious foam to crown the tea.
(All photos by G. Yek)
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.