This unassuming restaurant is easily missed. It sits on a side street off the main Chinatown thoroughfare although it still manages to attract a loyal following from the local and not-so-local Malaysian community.
It’s evident that food rather than decor is the draw here. It isn’t over-themed with Chinese lanterns and calligraphy. There is not a jade dragon to be seen. Rather, think Habitat and its Swedish counterpart than the Forbidden City, with a practical no-nonsense appearance. The food, however, a far cry from meatballs and open sandwiches.
Rasa Sayang offers Straits dishes. This isn’t modern fusion, and if it’s fusion at all it’s ancient. It is a cuisine that nods to all the culinary traditions of Malaysia and its neighbours. It has a spice palate of both Chinese and Indian but the resulting masterpiece is unique.
As snow fell, we drank traditional Malaysian tea, Teh Tarik. This was welcome, hot and much lighter than the versions I have previously tried. Chicken Satay is ubiquitous to Malaysian restaurants all around the world. They often pander to “Western” taste and may be nothing more than skewers of grilled chicken with a dip of peanut butter and a dash of soy sauce. Rasa Sayang has satay that is robust and boastful. It has punch.
Gado Gado is a preparation of bean curd and mixed vegetables with a sweet-spicy sauce. Roti Canai was a simple dish but an absolute triumph. This is the lightest and flakiest roti I have ever had. It is served with a small bowl of curry sauce and should come with a warning – you’ll find it hard to resist a second helping. Much better value for money than a cold curly sandwich for a light winter lunch.
Otak Otak – grilled fish cakes in banana leaf – were delicate and not excessively fishy with a mousse-like texture. Fried Tofu with a spicy mango sauce was a visual delight. Balls of bean curd are deep-fried to produce a crisp crust and a custard-like interior. The tangy sauce was a good counterpoint. A must-try dish for anyone who has professed to hating tofu.
Nasi Lemak is a hearty plateful of steamed coconut rice and chicken curry. A feast for the eyes. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender and was accompanied by a selection of condiments and garnishes such as peanuts and dried fish similar to the now-absent Bombay Duck of Indian restaurant fame. This added a pleasant saltiness to the rich curry.
The desserts at Rasa Sayang are fascinating, different and delicious. I am a lover of neither commercial ice cream nor banana fritters so an evening at an oriental restaurant often sees me leaving sans sweet finale. This restaurant has some exotic and impressive temptations in the form of Kueh Dada – pancakes of pandan (flavoured with an extract of leaves of pandanus amaryllifolius) filled with coconut; Kueh Salat – pandan essence and glutinous rice, subtle and sophisticated; Ondeh-Ondeh – sweet glutinous rice cakes.
The sweet stunner was Sago gula melaka – sago pudding in coconut and palm sugar broth. I can see you, dear reader, cringing at the very thought of sago. Yes, we can all remember it from school days (if one is of a certain age), cooked with water and looking and tasting like wallpaper paste. Sago gula melaka is far removed from that horror. It is, in fact, one of the few restaurant desserts that I would want to replicate chez nous. The sago is set, so there is no unseemly rolling around the plate. The palm sugar had a real flavour of rich toffee. Moreish and memorable.
Rasa Sayang has been open for a year or so and it deserves to become an institution. The quality of food is first class and much appreciated by its discerning regulars. It offers value for money and dishes that are said by the expat Malaysians to be authentic. I am planning a return visit.
5 Macclesfield Street
London, W1D 6AY
Phone: 020 7734 1382
Asian restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018