(Review published on Baristanet on Sept. 24th)
As someone who was born in Malaysia and has widely traveled and eaten her way through Southeast Asia, I was delighted to hear a restaurant called Pahang, after Malaysia’s third-largest state, had set up shop on Bloomfield Ave in Verona. With readers asking to know more about it, I was only too happy to oblige, even as I appreciated the surrealism of the task – little-known Pahang (plucked out of Malaysia), in the thick of Verona (ditto, out of Italy), in New Jersey. A neat microcosm of the three continents I’ve lived in. Serendipity? No matter, I was ravenous.
First, some context. Pahang the state, which comprises one million ethnic Malays and indigenous people (known as Bumiputeras), is also a fifth Chinese and seven percent Indian – factors which hugely shape the spicing and variety of the state’s cuisine, and of Malaysian food in general.
The visit to Pahang restaurant was a nostalgic one for me culinarily; for objectivity, I brought along a born-and-bred New Yorker friend who lives in Montclair and, thank goodness, was as motivated as I to find another Asian-food winner in the area. We had recently risked life and limb on Rt 10 to visit Penang on East Hanover, only to come away somewhat let down by our choices that day.
So, with renewed appetite, we walked into the cantaloupe and avocado-themed tropical-style interior of Pahang, which has been open since May, having parked easily across the restaurant and bought ourselves an hour at the meter for a mere 25 cents.
We made no reservations for lunch, indeed the restaurant was quiet, being as it was a Monday. More food for us then. I ask if we can have smaller portions as it was our first visit and as we were eager to try a number of dishes. Beyanka, the chef’s cheerful wife, politely obliged.
Perusing the impressive lunch and regular menus, we notice an entire section with several pages of Japanese food, including sushi, wraps and salads. As keen on Japanese as I am, I focus on the cuisine relevant to the restaurant’s name.
We start with Roti Canai (pronounced cha-nai) – an Indian-inspired flaky bread which also goes by the name of prata, served with chicken curry. This is typical of street food in Malaysia and Singapore, and I felt it could be a benchmark of things to come. The bread was perfect, hot off the griddle, light and fluffy, not greasy, and the tasty chicken curry had tender chunks of the bird in it. Big thumbs-up there.
Second is a fresh duck wrap, stuffed with with mango and vegetables and served with a hoisin-and-plum sauce, which, you guessed it, derives from Malaysia’s Chinese influences. The duck was a little gamey (sometimes the nature of duck) but this is somewhat mitigated by the sweetness of the mango and pleasing bite of the vegetables, all wrapped to picture perfection. Gordon Ramsay would be proud.
Gado gado is next – a popular street food in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, this is a salad comprising sliced boiled egg, served cold, along with crisp and green, lightly blanched French beans, tomatoes, fried tofu slices, Chinese turnip, Chinese cabbage and topped with a spicy peanut sauce. We both loved this salad and are already determined to make it a regular item on future visits. It’s crunchy, fresh, sweet and the variety of textures keeps it interesting. I love that it’s a complete meal with its egg and nutty sauce, and would have been quite happy having it alone for lunch.
For our mains, we pick a couple of dishes that are typically Malaysian. Beef rendang, a dark, sweet curry of beef which hails from Minangkabau in Indonesia, is one. I would gather that this dish varies from place to place, for it appeared to lack the tamarind-lemongrass factor I have come to expect, as well as the note of galangal. However, as beef curries go, it was delicious, the portions were generous, and the meat was tender and not grisly. If you’ve traveled through Asia, you will know that’s three points in your favor; it’s just not easy to coax quality flesh out of a scrawny cow that’s been fed a modest-calorie Asian diet.
Along with the curry came the Pahang Char Kway Teow, a stir-fried noodle dish chock full of bean sprouts, which the chef happily made substitutions for (I am allergic to shellfish and he used chicken instead, after also offering beef). We were both delighted at the mini wok the noodles were served in, topped off with a chive-blossom garnish. The dish was delicious and the chef mercifully went easy on the stir-fry oil.
Our meal had condiment companions. One, a fiery little dish of chopped bird’s-eye chilis which even I, accustomed to all manner of chillification, shied away from.
The second was a crunchy, dry chilli-and-shrimp sambal, like a dry chutney, which I’d recommend that one tries as it is authentically Malaysian. Although, like anchovies, it could be an acquired taste.
Overall, we were happy with the food, extremely so with the service, and would rate Pahang 3.5 stars out of 5. We were charmed by the boyish-faced chef, Tuck Cheng, 43, who met his wife Beyanka eight years ago, coincidentally, in a branch of the Penang restaurant in Long Island. After a few years of running that restaurant, they were hoping to open a new restaurant in the Greater New York Area. A friend recommended Verona, and one day, while driving through the city, they spotted a For Sale sign by the previous Chinese restaurant occupying the spot on Bloomfield Ave. With no Malaysian restaurant anywhere in the vicinity, they zeroed in and swooped it up.
Tuck Cheng and Beyanka are hoping to have their online menu up and running soon, but for those of you who have been, like me, on the lookout for a tasty Asian restaurant that does deliveries, your search ends here. Pahang will deliver, free of charge, to Montclair, Verona, Cedar Grove, West Orange, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield.
(Photos by Bernadette Baum)
Pahang Asian Cuisine
575 Bloomfield Ave
Verona, NJ 07044
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