Late last month, my good friend Stephanie Yuen invited me to a menu tasting at the recently opened Kaya Malay Bistro, just off of West Broadway and Oak street. As I was born in Malaysia, I am quite fond of the cuisine so I gladly accepted the invite. Although I had attended the grand opening of Kaya over the summer, I was still eager to sample the menu in more depth.
To kick off the media dinner, we were served the Kaya Salad Romaine which was made up of corn, dried cranberries, boiled egg, potatoes and deep-fried tofu. Generously poured over the ingredients was a creamy mango & peanut butter dressing. Although an interesting concept, this salad was a little bit too ‘busy’ for my liking. I felt the ingredients did not really come together cohesively and overall the dish was a bit disjointed. With some reworking, I can see this as a heavier Asian fusion based salad for those trying to be healthy but still get those strong South East flavors.
After the salad was taken away, we were served small bowls of Squash & Apple Curry Bisque along with plates of Home Style Roti w/ Chef’s Curry Sauce. The bisque turned out to be quite delicious, very thick and rich with that hint of sweetness from the apple. Although not technically a real bisque (vegetable purees are classified as cream soups) this was a very appetizing opening foray.
Roti canai is a dish that many restaurants in Vancouver attempt but few do well. I think the roti at Kaya was actually quite good. The top and bottom surfaces were quite crisp while the inside layers remained slightly doughy. A few of the pieces were a little too thick but that can be easily remedied by pulling the roti dough more diligently before frying. Overall, very good roti that goes well with the curry sauce.
One of the most popular items of the evening were the plates and plates of chicken satay. Served with fresh cucumber slices and pineapple, I loved this dish and took about 5-6 sticks. The chicken was moist and perfectly seared with a slight smokiness. One of my pet peeves at other Malaysian restaurants is the amount of meat on the skewer is laughably stingy but at Kaya the satay were quite well appropriated. Dipped lightly in the peanut sauce, this is definitely a dish everyone should order as part of lunch or dinner service.
The next dish was a plate of Crisp Spicy Calamari & Taro Root lightly dressed in Tamarind chilli sauce. Although the calamari was crispy and fairly tasty, I was a little confused as to the taro pairing choice. Personally, I would never pair taro and calamari but I respect Kaya for trying something a little different. I ended up simply eating the calamari and leaving the taro for others.
What turned out to be the best dish of the evening came about halfway through service in the form of a Deboned Hainanese Chicken done two ways and served with large bowls of chicken rice, ginger garlic sauce and chilli vinegar. The reaction around the table was pretty consistent as the chicken rice was very good. Very different from the chicken rice one makes at home, the rice was phenomenally fragrant and tasty. The chicken done two ways was fantastic, moist and meaty yet accented nicely by the ginger garlic and chilli vinegar dressing. Definitely a main dish I would order again with family or friends.
Passing the midpoint of the meal, we were served plates of Wok-fried Eggplant & Okra Spicy Shrimp Paste. I am actually not a big fan of Eggplant or Okra so this dish was a bit of a tango of devils for me. From what I tasted, the eggplant was cooked well and the okra was surprisingly not as ‘gummy’ or ‘slimy’ as it is normally. Not a personal favorite of mine but for those looking for less meat and more vegetables, this might be a good dish to try with rice.
At this point I was getting quite full so the remaining halibut and lamb plates were a bit difficult to work through. That said, I think the halibut was slightly overcooked as my cut was a little tough but the underlying bed of green beans was delicious in the sweet soy and ginger sauce. If the halibut had been cooked for 10-20 seconds less, I think it would have improved texturally and been slightly easier to eat. As for the grilled rack of lamb with mashed yam, the lamb was actually cooked very well. The meat was slightly red and very tender, infused with herbs and paired well with the puree yam.
To wrap up the evening with dessert, we were offered a trio dessert plate with a Mango durian roll, tapioca & coconut cream cup and a banana fritter with tea or coffee. Going from left to right, the banana fritter was very good and similar to what you will find at many Thai restaurants. The tapioca & coconut cream cup was gummy and sweet but it is the Mango durian roll I found most interesting. As I have said in previous articles, durian is a polarizing fruit that you either love or love to hate. Please note although mixed with mango, the durian taste is still quite strong and will stay with you well after your meal.
Wrapping up with a few final thoughts, this media dinner was interesting in that it let me preview dishes on the menu I normally would have never ordered. Being from Malaysia, I normally would have ordered satay, roti, laksa, nasi goreng and other popular favorites. That said, I understand why this specific media event presented the dishes it did. Vancouver is a notoriously difficult city for restaurants to survive as is evidenced by a few high profile closures this past summer. Whereas I would have liked a full dinner of traditional Malaysian staples, Vancouver simply is not able to sustain niche cuisine types. For a Malaysian restaurant to survive, it must cater to a broader demographic and I think that is what Kaya is trying to do. Overall, a strong showing with a few hits and misses but over time, I think the misses can be quite easily fixed. I will be back in a few months for a follow up but until then, I recommend you give Kaya a try and let us know what you think.