From spicy Malaysia to sunny Spain

I promise I will cook some Italian food soon (later today, in fact!) but first I want to write about two eateries I went to on Thursday – the hugely popular Malaysian restaurant Mamak in the city, and Spanish bistro El Bulli in Surry Hills.

Unseasonably cold and rainy on Thursday, Mamak is the perfect destination for a warming, comforting lunch. Going there at lunch time affords one the added benefit of avoiding the long queues down the street which are there every evening. That said, there’s plenty to entertain while you wait – the various types of roti are made on a bench looking directly out of the large glass frontage and you can see them being skillfully spun in the air like whirling dervish skirts, becoming increasing large, thin and translucent. It’s fascinating to watch. Once they’ve reached full size (about that of a bicycle wheel) they’re put down on the bench, stretched into a square shape and then carefully folded in on themselves into a mound once more before being oiled and spun again. I suppose the process is something like making puff pastry where the fat is gradually incorporated in many layers.

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

Roti being made

Roti being made, Mamak

While I’m busy trying to capture the perfect shot of the roti being made, our food has already arrived at our table. We share an original roti (roti canai) which comes with two curry dips and a hot sambal sauce. The roti is golden, crisp and flaky on the outside and soft and doughy inside with a wonderful elasticity. One of the dips is mild with lentils in it, the other hotter, and the sambal sauce is very piquant and tastes strongly of dried shrimp.

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce

Roti canai with two curry dips and sambal sauce, Mamak

We share three main dishes between the three of us which is more food than we can possibly eat so we take the leftovers back to the office in a doggy bag. (I’m the lucky one who gets to have Mamak curry for lunch twice in a row!) A slow-cooked lamb curry (kari kambing) has plenty of tender chunks of meat in a rust-coloured, complexly flavoured sauce that includes cloves, cinnamon and chili as well as many other spices I can’t identify.

Kari kambing - lamb curry

Kari kambing – slow-cooked lamb curry, Mamak

The fish curry (kari ikan) has generous pieces of a dense white fish along with tender eggplant chunks, okra, tomatoes and large whole green chilis in a bright caramel, sweet, shrimpy sauce. It’s a bit hotter in chili terms than the other curry.

Kari ikan - fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant

Kari ikan – fish curry with fresh tomatoes, okra and eggplant, Mamak

Our other dish is called ‘rojak’, a Malaysian style salad with prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean* and cucumber topped with thick satay sauce and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s refreshing, crunchy, sweet and coconuty, a great complement to the curries. (* A yam bean is a tuber vegetable with crunchy white flesh, similar in texture to water chestnuts.)

Rojak - prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce

Rojak – prawn and coconut fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs, shredded yam bean and cucumber, topped with satay sauce, Mamak

As we wait at the front counter to pay, I survey the large, buzzing room packed with Asian students and suited office workers. The bill comes to $25 per head, great value for a huge and very delicious meal.

Having had such an enormous lunch I only need a snack before the theatre that evening so Mr T and I head to El Bulli for tapas, conveniently located a mere two-minute walk from Belvoir St Theatre. Once housed in a small, intimate venue about 50m north of their current location on Elizabeth Street, El Bulli is now in much bigger premises with five dining areas and an impressive long, highly polished wooden bar cut from what appears to be a single tree. Dimly lit, the decor is all dark wood, sumptuous curtains concealing the busy street outside, and tealights twinkling in red glass containers. Outside the ladies bathroom is a richly upholstered chaise longue and more dramatic curtains opposite a mural of a couple locked forever in the passionate embrace of flamenco.

The bar at El Bulli

The bar at El Bulli

Our gorgeous Spanish waitress chats with us about Spain and I ask her if the Iberico ham on the menu is the real deal, as I witnessed on Rick Stein’s Spain the other night. Sadly not, she says, as there are difficulties with importation. (I’m now determined to try to track some down!) So instead we have deep-fried white bait (cornalitos fritos) and some paella balls (albondigas de paella), and I have a glass of rosé, sweet and full of summer berry flavours. The whitebait are crunchy little nuggets of fishy goodness which we dip into aioli, and the paella balls are crumbed on the outside and filled with sweet saffron-colored rice studded with chicken and chorizo, topped with more aioli and flecked with parsley.

white bait

Cornalitos fritos – deep-fried white bait, El Bulli

Albondigas de paella - paella balls

Albondigas de paella – paella balls topped with aioli, El Bulli

It’s a highly pleasurable pre-theatre bite but we’ll definitely have to go back with an appetite and give the extensive menu a good workout, perhaps on one of their regular live music nights. It’d be a great place for a celebration dinner with a big group of people. Now there’s a thought!

Mamak
15 Goulburn Street, Sydney

El Bulli
504 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Both visited 11 October 2012

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