Something seems vaguely defiant about Malaysia Kopitiam’s lack of interest in conjuring a comfy sense of place. Its address furnishes inevitable dissonance: Despite the restaurant’s dearth of daylight and presumably modest budget, Kopitiam is clean and bright. It sits in a sub-basement next to M Street’s strip clubs—which makes the vibe, by D.C. business-district standards, almost underbelly.
And even though the restaurant’s name suggests a narrow focus, its food springs from a relatively wide chunk of the map. One meal I have begins with an appetizer that might be a New Delhi street vendor’s idea of a burrito: roti wrapped around lettuce, onion, and tamarind-sauced pork. Baked salty shrimp comes straight out of Chinatown, and the whole chicken stuffed with smoked duck is a close facsimile of a dish I saw on a lot of menus in New Orleans. Label the food as you wish—Malaysian, pan-Asian. As could conceivably happen in ethnically diverse Malaysia, the accent could change with every course.
Yet you could hardly call Kopitiam a standard-issue fusion emporium; Malay serves as the lingua franca of the house. Take out the Chinese and Indian, though, and the menu would still be massive and reasonably eclectic. The restaurant’s owners ran the late Malaysian Satay House in Wheaton, arguably the best restaurant of its kind in the area, and they know how to sell to the uninitiated. The staff brings a binder filled with photographs to every table, along with a double-sided menu, which most diners ignore. Photos don’t merely give life to menu descriptions like “fish head with okra, eggplant, and tomatoes”; they help with translation between the diners and the staff.
It should be noted, however, that visual communication presents a unique set of problems. Take the “stuffed fritter.” In reality, the dish is irresistible: a crunchy, oily breadstick laced with garlic and stuffed with flavorful bits of minced chicken and shrimp. In its picture, the thing looks like a Twinkie that’s pushing the limits of its life span. Stuffed rice crepes, on the other hand, look gorgeous both in person and on film. If only the delicate little rolls, set in a pool of sweet soy sauce and plumped with strands of jicama, arrived hot. I’d even settle for warm.
So it goes at Kopitiam, where one night’s sublime tofu clay pot gets erased by the next night’s crispy squid salad—which, incidentally, comes served to us without crispy squid.
Considering how many of Kopitiam’s dishes turn me on, I attribute the mishaps to a kitchen stretching itself too thin and cutting corners in the process. Heading out to a low-priced Asian restaurant expecting farm-fresh ingredients is as foolhardy as hitting T.G.I. Friday’s for boutique wine. That said, Kopitiam could still stand to be more finicky about beef. If beef rendang, curry beef noodles, and beef satay have anything in common, it’s chewy meat. Elsewhere, the food simply tastes underloved. Scallops are creamy-soft, but the harshness of their egg-white-thickened chili sauce doesn’t pay any dividends; there’s no nuance to the heat, which grates against the scallop’s natural sweetness. Black-pepper lamb is more carefully calibrated, but its dark sauce, which comes covered in a thin film, feels disconcertingly gooey. Chicken- and shrimp-stuffed lotus root offers a visual kick and nothing more; it’s dull and mealy once it gets to your mouth.
The disappointments intensify the vibrancy of Kopitiam’s successful dishes, but the house curries suggest that this kitchen simply executes some things a whole lot better than others. Take the Malaysian curry chicken—straightforward, hot, rich, and milky—or the mixed curry vegetable pot, which bobs with juicy eggplant, soft, whole okra, and firm tofu. The pork-rib noodle soup is something else: The curry broth that settles in the bowl’s bottom is relatively thick, tinted extra-orange by the meat’s oil, and it coats each rib in a spicy, decadent glaze. A platter of Hainanese chicken contains perfectly steamed, unadorned breast meat accompanied by dipping sauces of varying degrees of sweetness and spiciness; the dish is spare, light, and delicious, rounded out by a mound of rice cooked in chicken broth. And I don’t think I could eat at Kopitiam again without ordering either the crisp, bright watercress splashed with fermented tofu sauce or the garlicky Chinese spinach stir fry.
Only the impressively multilingual will leave the restaurant having engaged employees in anything close to repartee; nonetheless, the expert staff works quickly and unobtrusively, and advice is easy to come by—if you ask. I’m especially grateful to the waitress who heartily advocates indulging in the sweet stuff, such as the frothy, bright-green fresh apple juice with a sour plum; each refreshing sip tastes like nothing so much as a sweet, Granny Smith apple.
And the ice Kachang deserves its own segment on the evening news. Composed of crushed ice, kidney beans, corn, licoricey gelatin, evaporated milk, sugar, and peanuts, the dish pretty much defies description—a picture wouldn’t do it justice, either. Suffice it to say that it’s sweet despite the vegetable content, savory despite the sugar, and more than enough reason to venture a half-flight below street level to see if Kopitiam can take you someplace you’ve never been.
Malaysia Kopitiam, 1827 M St. NW, (202) 833-6232.
One reader, the one I’ve come to know by her greeting (“It’s me—the one who’s into three-ways”), insists that the new Bistro Med is a different place at 3 in the morning than it is at 8 at night. During normal hours, the Georgetown cafe serves Mediterranean dishes of varying caliber. In the wee hours, breakfast is set against a backdrop of after-bar weirdness. Mine is a plate of spicy sausage, dried beef, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and greens, all of which I roll into a hot pita and wash back with tea. Why it’s good is hard to say. Maybe it’s the sharp-flavored olives or the oven-crisp bread. Or maybe it’s because the guy to my right decides to quit snoring just as my meal arrives.
Bistro Med, 3288 M St. NW, (202) 333-2333. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.