Peninsula is the premier Malaysian restaurant in the Twin Cities. I’m not sure, actually, if there even is another worth the name—if so, no one’s ever mentioned it to me. Unsurprisingly, its menu serves a sort of South East Asian greatest hits, much of which is not terribly inspiring (lots of very sweet takes on Thai dishes, for example). Some of their Malay dishes, however, can be quite good, and it’s possible to eat quite well there if you pick your way carefully around the menu. Over the last seven years we’ve done just that and through our extended trial and error I offer you the following recommendations of most of the dishes that we like best there. What follows is a report on two meals eaten a month or so apart (first in late August, and then last weekend).
By the way, in a great irony the best renditions by far of two quintessential Indian dishes can be found not at any Indian restaurant in the Twin Cities but at Peninsula, and both in one dish there. I refer to their roti canai. Their roti (generic word for bread in most Indian languages) is as close as you will come to a proper paratha in the United States short of eating in a good Indian cook’s home. And the chicken curry that is served with it is as close as you will come to simple chicken curries that are eaten across the breadth of North India, from Calcutta to Amritsar—no cream or nut paste in it at all. Not surprisingly, if you lunch there after 1 pm on a weekend you’ll find a fair number of South Asians eating, and if 95% of them don’t have an order of roti canai on their table I’ll drink some more Dewar’s White Label.
That these homestyle Indian dishes should be so good in a Malaysian restaurant is, of course, no surprise—especially if you’ve ever been to Singapore or environs. (What is surprising is that not one fucking Indian restaurant can be bothered to get either right.) The Malay peninsula is across the Bay of Bengal (and a bit south) from South India and there’s a long history of trade and movement of culture and people across the water (the “canai” in roti canai refers to the city of Chennai/Madras). There are large numbers of Indians in the region and over the years their food has become more or less indigenous while hybridizing to some degree or the other with some or the other of the many South/East Asian cuisines that make the area home along with their established immigrant communities. On this note, see, for example, also the rendang pictured below which is somewhere between an Indian curry and an Indonesian rendang.
(I’ve only been to Singapore a couple of times (stopping sometimes on the way home to India) but of all the places I’ve been to it’s probably the one I’d most want to live in if food was the only consideration. Alas, many of the other aspects of life in Singapore make the prospect less attractive: the high tax on whisky, the risk of accidentally drinking a repulsive Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel, the 100% humidity and, of course, the whole authoritarian city state thing. Hmmm maybe it’s Kuala Lumpur we need to stop at next time….)
Anyway, click on an image below to launch a larger slideshow with detailed captions.
These were both very enjoyable meals. We haven’t been there at dinner since our kids were born so I’ve no idea if that’s any different but it’s certainly a very pleasant spot for a weekend lunch. I will note that none of the dishes marked spicy in fact are, and if you ask for them to be made extra spicy you’ll likely get them at a somewhat spicy level. There are a few other things we enjoy there—the brisket curry hot pot (though as with the lamb in the rendang there’s no guarantee the meat will be as tender as you’d want it on every visit), the asam laksa (more sour than the nyonya laksa and no coconut milk) and well, that might be it. If you have favourites not mentioned or pictured please recommend them below. I will note that rojak was one of our very favourite things to eat in Singapore (we ate it every opportunity we got) but we’ve not enjoyed Peninsula’s version (there may, of course, be nothing wrong with their version which may simply be a regional variation).
And if you’re wondering: my survey of Indian restaurants—which suffered a major setback at Dosa King—will hopefully start up again soon. I need more time to go by to convince the missus to go with me again.