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Apr 16, 2010 09:57 AM

Seri Malaysia: A Chowdown (Vancouver)

I have wanted to hold a Chowdown here at Seri Malaysia for quite a while now. I don't really know why it didn't happen earlier, but finally it happened last night. I have been a regular at Seri Malaysia for a quite a long time now - since around the time it first opened a number years ago. My first bite there told me that this is the real deal. I think I ordered the Beef Rendang and the Nasi Goreng Kampong....and I recall thinking how the flavours were not at all muted like at all the other Malaysian places in town.

Chef Jamal, the lone operator here, used to be part owner of Kedah House prior to striking out on his own. He is Malay (from Mersing, Johor on the east coast) and his cooking has the flavour profile of Halal "Malay-Malaysian" instead of the usual "Chinese-Malaysian" (Tropika, Banana Leaf are prime examples of that style). Seri Malaysia is one of two places that serve this type of cuisine (the other being the lacklustre Kedah House).

The flavours here are bold - strong flavours from the salty dried seafood (anchovies, belachan, dried shrimp), heat from chilies, and subtle spicing from Malaysian curry powders. A few people commented on the higher than usual salt levels - which to me is typical of much of South East Asian cuisine. Indeed, reducing the amount of salt (a common compromise to appeal to Western palates) will detract from the authenticity of the flavours.

The presentation is homestyle: no-frills and honest. He might add some deep-fried onion chips, chopped cucumbers and onions to your dishes, but that is it. The ambiance is spartan and a bit shabby. These two factors are irrelevant to me personally - but I thought I would mention it if it matters to you.

The service sometimes suffers because he is often a one-man show. Yet the service here is much better than most places nearby with full complement of staff. I have seen him serve an almost full restaurant by himself - serving, bussing, taking orders, cooking. If it gets overly busy, the regulars know to make allowances and just get up and grab their own pitcher of water or utensils or whatever. They (we) know Jamal works his ass off and would appreciate it. He does have hired help on busy days. I thought I would mention it if this scenario will bother you.

One more thing: it is inexpensive. Dishes that go for about $12 elsewhere are going for about $8 here. Insanely cheap.

Here is a list of what we ordered:
Roti Canai - nice, and flakey though not homemade, but prepared from frozen. Still very good.

Beef and Chicken Satay - nice flavours from the well marinated meat. The peanut sauce was a tad sweet. The meat wasn't "juicy", but that is common in Satays made with lean meat.

Nasi Goreng Kampong - a "village" or "homestyle" fried rice with shrimp and small dried anchovies. I love this stuff. Aroma and saltiness from the anchovies, lots of chili heat, and a significant amount of wok hei (owing to Jamal's rocket burner wok stove).

Kambing Bryani - Lamb Bryani. One of Jamal's signature dishes. Malaysians from all over the area have been known to buy this in bulk for parties and weddings. Nicely aromatic from the curry spices and whole cardamom. The meat was tender (though today not its usual "falling off the bone tender" )

Beef Rendang - another dish that Chef Jamal is known for. Nice tender beef in a long cooked highly spiced and thick coconut based sauce. Deeply savoury and aromatic. Addicting with a side of white rice.

Kacang Boncis - Green beans dried fried in a salty dried prawn paste. One of the best single dishes in this city. Whenever I introduce someone to this dish, it invariable becomes part of their usual order here when they come back to the restaurant. The beans are just barely cooked through and the prawn paste lends its salty goodness with each bite.

Peppercorn Chili Garlic Prawns - nice lightly deepfried prawns which are then tossed together in a garlic and peppercorn stirfry. Also very nice and was receiving accolades.

Ikan Sambal - deep fried mackarel with a sambal belachan (a spice paste made with blocks of dried prawn). The least successful of the dishes tonight. The mackarel were small and were a bit overcooked. I must say that I have had a better rendition of this dish in the past.

Mee Goreng - nice sweet/savoury Kecap Manis (sweet soya) based sauce. Most examples are syrupy sweet. Not this is nicely balanced. Jamal's hot wok perfumed the dish with nice amount of wok hei.

Cendol - this is the best cendol in this city. Jamal uses a good amount of Gula Melaka (pure Mallacan palm sugar). It gives the drink an deep, caramelized, slightly tart flavour. Very good on a hot day or after eating a spicy meal.

Ice Bandung - Rose Milk which is made with a hard-to-find rose-pandan syrup. Chef has to have this syrup shipped from Malaysia as it is impossible to find here.

Part of the problem with running an ethnic restaurant in this part of town is stocking fresh seafood and greens. Some of the Malaysian classics here become prey to this problem. For example kangkong (water convulvus) dishes and seafood dishes are often not available or are a special order. One tip: Call ahead for some of his specials (Fish Head Curry, Chili Crab, etc.) or bring your own ingredients (crab for chili crab, kangkong) and he will be happy to cook it fresh for you.

I highly recommend this place. While a couple of the dishes may fall a little flat, there really is nowhere else you can get this food at this level of cooking. Jamal operates in a bit of isolation - as such he doesn't compromise on the authenticity of the flavours - and indeed may be oblivious to such compromises. He doesn't tone down, Sinify or Westernize like the more well-known Malaysian places like Banana Leaf and Tropika. He, however, necessarily compromises on ingredients (availability of authentic ingredients, and stocking fresh are the usual issues).

More pics:

If anyone would like to join us in these Chowdowns please log on here and introduce yourself:

Seri Malaysia Restaurant
2327E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V5L1V6, CA

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  1. This was an excellent meal and the value was inarguable ($20 each tax and tip in for the above dishes for 9 people and I don't think anyone left hungry -- I know I didn't). I would order everything we had again with the possible exception of the mackerel which has never been a favourite fish of mine anyway. Biggest standout for me was the village fried rice. Between the tiny crispy fishies and the chile heat, this dish was very much to my taste. I also loved the cendol which for those of you who haven't had it is something between a drink and dessert with coconut milk, ice, the palm sugar fmed mentioned and (best of all) small green rice flour nerbles that resembled leeches but tasted much better :-). I can see why this is popular in hot countries -- I've had something similarish at Vietnamese restos around town but this was better, not quite so sweet.

    The lack of heat in all the dishes save the village rice was something we discussed on the way home. With no Malaysian experts in the car, we were wondering if this was usual or not. Seemed like a couple of the dishes would have been even better with a bit more of a chile kick built in?

    Thanks fmed for making this meal happen -- I'm just sorry we waited so long. Can't wait to take the Parental Units here to try more authentic Malay food.

    1 Reply
    1. re: grayelf

      Most of the dishes we ordered really aren't that spicy hot (typically and comparatively). The best thing to do is order a side of sambal which you use as condiment. My favorite side is sambal belachan. You can also order the dishes much hotter if you wish - he would merely add sambal anyway.

    2. I am really surprized by this result. I had eaten their lunch curry specials several times a few years ago and found them to be indifferent at best. At the time the kitchen I think was run by a women so I do not know if the ownership changed. I must try them again because I am certainly a sucker for beef rendang and lamb bryani. Thanks for the review. By the way if any of you had eaten at Jonker St, I would be interested in a comparison between the two in terms of food guality and flavour. I recognize that Jonker St was more expensive when it was open.

      11 Replies
      1. re: Philx

        He had a woman cook for a while, admittedly, but I have never had the food cooked by her. I have never personally seen the place run by anyone else but Jamal. Try his rendang and lamb bryani, These were given thumbs up by the two Malaysians who were at this Chowdown.

        I found Jonker to be Chinese-Malaysian as well and somewhat toned down...kind of like Banana Leaf (and you pay the Yaletown premium).

        1. re: fmed

          "These were given thumbs up by the two Malaysians who were at this Chowdown."

          Good enough for me. Thanks.

        2. re: Philx

          Jonker has been closed a while now. replaced by se asian noodle place i believe.
          jonker rendang was good. but prob due to location and size had to charge too much for a meal there. Seri Malaysia is better value if you dont mind the current location in east vancouver. SM flavors are more homestyle malay food. For a one man show Jamal does a very very good job. Certainly worth giving him a chance again if you previous exp was not good.

          Seri Malaysia Restaurant
          2327E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V5L1V6, CA

          1. re: betterthanbourdain

            Jonker is now "Fresh Bowl," but I think it's still the same owners. Basically they put up a sign one day that said they were "re-branding" under the direction of some restaurant brand consultants, and voila! Bright lights, new signage, same average food, more Vitamin Water. I haven't bothered trying it out, so perhaps I'm missing out on an epiphany.

            1. re: clutterer

              Yaletown is a tough location for ethnic (specifically Asian) restaurants. A couple of the Thai places in Yaletown are OK...but definitely pretty Westernized for the prevailing palates. That said...Fresh Bowl might actually fly.

              1. re: fmed

                I'm just wondering when a Hooters will show up.

                1. re: clutterer

                  Earl's has a lock on that particular market segment there.

                2. re: fmed

                  Eek, fresh bowl makes me think of toilets :-).

                  Will keep an eye peeled (get it, peeled... spot prawns... oh never mind) for the info on the next Seri 'down.

                  In (sort of) related news, and thanks to a tip from Chowtimes, there is a Burmese New Year Water Festival taking place at Oakridge Mall (Apr 24, 10-3, Oakridge Auditorium near the Seniors Centre, southwest parking lot) in case anyone wants to check it out. Admission is free but donations are accepted.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    Grayelf -

                    Remember Ally McBeal (ye gods, apparently 1997) and John Cage saying "I like a fresh bowl"?

                    I saw that too on the Burmese Festival. Going to try and squeeze it in.

                    1. re: repartee

                      That is exactly why it made me think of toilets, repartee -- ack, outed as an Ally McBeal fan on CH!

                      I have a meeting at 10 on Sat but hope to head over when it is done, so may see you at Oakridge.

                3. re: clutterer

                  an epiphany! :-D

                  the food at jonke wasnt bad. and they definitely needed better guidance and direction. the location suffers greatly from lack of food traffic and parking availability. ethnic food relying on urban yaletown folks is not the best business plan, i suppose.

            2. prices are very reasonable.
              would love to do one with dungeness crabs if ur interested.

              3 Replies
              1. re: betterthanbourdain

                Definitely in for Chili Crab. We can contact him about Fish Head Curry, Banana Leaf Fish and a few other specialty dishes too.

                1. re: fmed

                  got a good source for dungeness crab, good price :-). was thinking of getting some spot prawns too. but wonder if the malaysian curry would be overwhelming.
                  banana leaf would be nice with stingray....

                  1. re: betterthanbourdain

                    Thumbing through my calendar now. During Spot Prawn season would be ideal.
                    edit: I'll follow this up on (Newbies are invited to log on and introduce themselves).

                1. I ate at Seri Malaysia today for the first time. My wife and i were planning on going to Bao Chao for spring rolls but it was closed so we walked over to Le Do but it was closed too, so we went to Seri Malaysia. We had the chicken curry, roti canai, gado gado and mee goreng with beef. I was pretty impressed with all the food, the gado gado on particular. It was very much like a salad kaek I used to eat at a thai restaurant in New York. The food all seemed very authentic and I couldn't believe how cheap it was. I will definitely be a regular when I move back to Vancouver next week.

                  Seri Malaysia Restaurant
                  2327E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V5L1V6, CA

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: tdeane

                    Enjoy it soon and often, tdeane -- last I heard he was planning on closing soon. fmed?

                    1. re: grayelf

                      I did see online that it is for sale.

                      1. re: tdeane

                        I talked to Jamal about a month ago and he said he was going to go back to Malaysia and find out if he could do better there. I got the impression his rent is too high to support cash flow. He did say that if Malaysia did not look positive he would think about returning to Canada. No idea on timing or if that is still his plan.

                        1. re: Philx

                          I suspect the deal he was talking about fell he may be hanging on until he gets the right price for the place. Not confirmed...merely speculation. I'll drop by as soon as I can and have a chat with Jamal to find out what's up. In the meantime....make sure to check it out while he's here.

                          1. re: fmed

                            I popped in to say hello on my way home today. I picked up a nasi goreng kampung while I was at it (I'm eating it right now...I'm not feeling well and this is hitting the spot.) .

                            I told him that "the internet is asking if you are staying or going" LOL. Anyway, the scoop is - that deal to sell his place (mentioned upthread) did fall through so he is staying for a while...until he hears from his landlord (his lease is indeed up) or he gets a good price for his place. He seems to have changed his tune about going back home to Malaysia (but those who know Jamal recognize that he changes his mind like the wind)...and is back to looking for a new spot along Commercial Drive or even Victoria Drive.

                            So - get you fill of Jamal's cooking while you can. Who really knows what will happen next?!