NEW HAVEN -- Not long ago, this city's only claim to culinary fame was its pizza. Thin-crust pies were introduced here by Neapolitan immigrants nearly a century ago, as I learned from Robin Goldstein, coauthor of a new dining guide to New Haven. A century later, much has changed. The Neapolitan pizzas are still worth writing about, but less than half a mile away, an upscale Southeast Asian restaurant is sharply redefining the city's dining scene.
Malaysian chef Jeff Ghazali presides over the kitchen at Bentara ("bentara" was the title given to the king's highest-ranking servant in Malaysia's pre-republic days). Those unfamiliar with Malaysian cuisine may be surprised at how recognizable it is. Spread on an equatorial curve along the old trade routes of the South China Sea, Malaysia has always been a natural site for the explosive mingling of Eastern and Western cultures. Traces of Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Thai, Portuguese, Dutch, and British influence inform the work of Malay chefs, making theirs one of the most ancient colonial-fusion cuisines in the world.
Bentara's interior reflects this pan-Southeast Asian aesthetic. Shadow puppets behind rice paper line the walls, high rattan stools abut the bar; all around, you sense the heavy presence of carved and polished tropical hardwoods. Our party of five settled into a comfortable U-shaped booth to peruse what Goldstein and Clare Murumba's book, "The Menu," describes as "New Haven's best wine list." To enhance our decision-making, we sipped a couple of Bentara's signature fruit martinis: a tart green apple version and the ineffable purple Buddha, whose intensely floral blend of pineapple and raspberry sped the vodka to our heads.
We began our meal with piping hot roti murtabak, a type of ghee bread stuffed with spiced ground meat and onion. The sweet-sour red onion sauce so transformed the roti, we had to order more, while a curry sauce offered an irresistible savory counterpoint. Curried mussels, gently bathed in coconut milk, brought the Atlantic mollusk into a South Sea context to grand effect. The texture of a cold calamari salad was perfect, with the tiny, sambal-drenched rings still tender and showered with diced cucumber, tomato, and red onion -- proof, if we needed it, of the kitchen's commitment to high-end presentation.
The entrees did not let us down. We ordered Bentara's filet of beef. Rubbed with coriander and black pepper and served with a thick cabernet reduction and a trio of inventive sides (bok choy, lemon-garlic potatoes, mesclun in a spring-roll basket), it was a world of flavor removed from the bare hunk of meat served at most steakhouses. Hot and spicy fish turned out to be a gorgeous whole fried red snapper, finished with shrimp paste, tamarind juice, and a blast of chili.Curried seafood, if less exciting than other dishes, was still a creditable marriage of coconut milk and spice to fish, shrimp, and a wide array of vegetables (the long green beans were especially sweet). And the humbly named two soy beef nearly fell apart under the fork, its dark threads of meat addictively saturated with kecap manis, the Indonesian sweet soy sauce, and salty Chinese soy sauce.
We found ourselves unable to address the dessert menu, which was tantalizing: tropical sorbets of mango and coconut and a ginger-spiked lychee confection called air batu campur, balanced by westward-looking offerings such as cognac pumpkin cheesecake and chocolate bombe mousse cake. An impressive array of ports and dessert wines would certainly have claimed our attention if we had eaten less.
Chef Ghazali downplays his success, describing his style as "homestyle"; "I brought a lot of my mother's recipes to the restaurant," he says. Still, Bentara has the warmly hospitable feel of a place where good food and drink are venerated, not just prepared. As happy diners spill out into the street, turning the corner past the welcoming silence of the town green, you can almost see New Haven's culinary horizons expanding -- one table at a time.
For details on Bentara, see the New Haven itinerary.
T. Susan Chang is a freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.