Golden Leaf needs to spice things up
You’re halfway ’round the world when you walk into Golden Leaf, a new Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown. It’s decorated to evoke a Southeast Asian seaside kampong (village) with giant glass murals of turquoise water and palm trees. Burnished rocks peek through the wooden slats of the raised floor and the tables and chairs look as if they’ve been constructed of wicker fronds. Except for the incongruous 1970s r & b background music, you’d think you were at a beach resort on the Strait of Malacca.
Malaysian – with its Indian, Chinese, Thai and indigenous influences – is true fusion cuisine. And Golden Leaf is a striking setting in which to enjoy this vibrantly colorful and robustly seasoned fare. If only the kitchen didn’t hold back on the spices. Presumably the staff thinks the vivid flavors of Malay cooking may overwhelm non-Malays.
Malaysian-style, stir-fried radish cake ($5.95) – a mix of gooey, Chinese sausage-studded radish cake, shrimp, sprouts and scallions – seems deliberately under-soy sauced. The chicken curry in which you dunk flaky ($3.50) crepe isn’t as fiery as it might be. And tempura-light, fried anchovy ($6.50) aren’t really anchovies – they’re less-assertive fried whitebait.
Not that everything is toned down. You’ll like the pillowy consistency of fried homemade tofu ($5.25) and mousselike otak-otak ($5.95), ground fish paste barbecued in aromatic banana leaves. Popiah ($6.50), steamed spring rolls stuffed with jicama, cabbage, dried shrimp and fried onions, delightfully combine soft and crunchy in every bite.
The faint floral fragrance in pandam leaves chicken ($6.25) is from the pandam (screwpine) leaves themselves. Tied around chunks of fried chicken thigh, they impart a seductive scent. Charcoal-grilled whole calamari ($5.95) is moist and chewy. Alas, too many appetizers come with the same, sticky sweet, Day-Glo-orange dipping sauce – it tastes bottled.
The friendly wait staff will help you navigate the extensive menu. Meals are served on brightly colored, whimsically shaped plates and platters, garnished with flowers. But oftentimes, the food falls short of its exuberant presentation.
Cilantro-strewn, slow-braised, beef rendang ($12.95) is admirably tender, although it lacks the subtle chili burn one associates with this Malay classic. The coconut-screwpine rice in the nasi lemak ($6.95) is a bit more starchy than creamy, but you’ll love its myriad condiments: chicken curry, hard-boiled egg, cucumbers, peanuts, fiery anchovy sambal (with real anchovies) and achat (pickled cabbage, cucumbers, carrots and string beans in sweet peanut sauce).
The only drawback to stir-fried ladyfingers (okra) and shrimp ($12.95) with “spicy grounded dried shrimp” is that it isn’t particularly spicy. Ditto, stir-fried kankung ($8.95) , which substitutes water spinach for okra and omits the shrimp; it would be better, if it were hotter. Looking for heat? You’ll be happier with sambal shrimp ($12.95) with lots of onions and peppers in clingy, red shrimp paste – but it, too, could be more piquant.
Many Golden Leaf dishes are beyond reproach. Everyone will like mango chicken ($13.95), tossed with sliced mango, peppers, onions and sweet-and-sour sauce and dramatically presented in a hollowed-out mango shell. It’s easy on your eyes, your pocketbook and your stomach. Think of chow kueh teow rice noodles ($7.50) with squid, shrimp, sprouts, eggs, soy and chili sauce as a NC-17 version of pad Thai, more salty than sweet. Stir-fried ginger and scallion crab ($19.95) is messy but superb eating. Use your chopsticks, fingers and teeth to extract the juicy crabmeat.
There’s a huge selection of iced coffees and teas, fresh juices, iced fruit drinks, smoothies, milkshakes and bubble teas. You can order a young coconut ($3.50) with its top hacked off and slurp up its juice through a straw. Tsingtao beer costs $4.
Warm coconut pudding ($5.25) is a comforting dessert, as is bubur chacha ($3.50), coconut milk soup speckled with tapioca, diced taro and sweet potato. Golden Leaf ice ($3.50) is better known by aficionados as ABC. One of Malaysia’s most popular treats, it’s a scoop of shaved ice on red beans, corn kernels, palm seeds and cubed jellies, topped with coconut milk and multiple syrups.
ABC may appear odd to the uninitiated – but it’s delicious. There’s no need to sacrifice authenticity on the well-intentioned altar of hospitality, not when it comes to a cuisine as delectably fascinating as Malaysian.
Price: Under $20
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri. & Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
Bar: Beer and wine
Parking: On street, nearby lots
Caption: DESTINATION DINNER: The whimsically decorated Golden Leaf, a new Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown, evokes a Southeast Asian beach resort. STAFF PHOTO BY MICHAEL FEIN