Truth to tell, after a looooong drive to lovely Kuala Terengganu (KL-Kuantan, an easy 3 hours; Kuantan-Kuala Terengganu on the trunk road, a tortuous 3 1/2), it wasn't dinner we were fishing for. Around 7pm on the first day of our east Malaysia road trip, we went in search of a calming, stiff joint-loosening pre-meal aperitif in darkened, seemingly dead-to-the-world KT. First stop, "Traveller's Cafe", which our Rough Guide to Malaysia describes as "one of the few places in the vicinity where you'll get a beer with your meal". Having no interest in the cafe's western fare, we planned to skip the meal, down the beer, and then move on for solid sustenance.
The staff gave us some pretty strange looks when we walked in. Perhaps they knew what we were after, but were no longer serving the hard stuff? "We're here for a beer," Dave muttered out of the side of his mouth, as if he were speaking through the back door of some gin joint during America's Prohibitionist period. Closed for a private party, came the reply.
Back in the car, driving aimlessly and wondering where we'd eat dinner let alone get a drink, we spotted a bright and busy Chinese coffee shop -- with a big green and white Carlsburg sign above the counter. Lucky indeed, because the Straits Restoran turned out to serve not only beer, but truly memorable food as well.
We kept it simple, sticking to seafood (being on the South China Sea coast and all) and vegetables. Of the latter, kangkong (morning glory/water spinach) stir-fried with belacan was a bit overcooked for my taste, the kangkong reduced to a slippery wet rag-like lump with little texture (belacan tasted fine -- sufficiently fishy-pungent and plenty fiery). But a dish listed on the menu board as yu chao dou ya (bean sprouts stir-fried with fish; bean sprouts ikan masin in Malay, I think) was heavenly. The fish in question is a piece of a salted (and preserved) fillet, cut into chunks, rinsed -- and perhaps soaked? -- before cooking to decrease the salinity. The soft (but not mushy) chunks of fish, about half an inch square, proved the perfect pungent complement to bland bean sprouts stir-fried with soy to just crisp-tender.
We hit a home run with our two seafood picks. The first, a snapper (or snapper-like specimen), was prepared malai fengguang (Malaysian-style, or with Malaysian tastes). Thai culinary influence was evident in this taste treat (Terengganu state is separated from Thailand only by Kelantan state), in which the fish was deep-fried and topped with a mango and onion "salad" dressed with a sweet and sour chili sauce. The flavors of this dish, if not the preparation of the fish itself, were reminiscent of a Thai dish known as "exploded" catfish (pla dook foo), in which boned catfish is cooked and deep-fried to a sort of brittle, cottony mass and topped with shredded green mango, chopped chilies and scallions, and coriander, and doused with a lime-fish sauce-chili dressing. My own tastebuds (probably harkening back to some yummy pla dook foo enjoyed in Bangkok) wished for a bit more sour and a lot more hot in our "malai" fried snapper (our elfin waitress -- very friendly and willing to endure with a smile my strangled Mandarin -- warned of its spiciness but frankly the dish didn't register at all on my own personal Scoville scale). Nonetheless, the fish was perfectly crispy, nary a smidge of grease on the plate, and the contrast of hot piscene with cool, sour mango was a lovely one.
Our big splurge this meal was 4 huge prawns (at 28 ringgit total -- well less than U$10 and thus still a bargain in my book) cooked with a method new to me: steamed with egg white (and topped with ginger and scallion shreds, and coriander).
I'm not sure I could say that the egg white itself added a lot to the taste of the prawns (a solidified pool of egg white is just visible at the bottom right of the plate above), but the combo -- a bite of fresh, firm and briney prawn, alternated with soft, gingery egg white -- was wonderful indeed.
All in all an excellent meal (families continued to pour into the Straits as we devoured our dinner; in fact the place was packed when we left around 9pm) for a total of 92 ringgit of which much, much more than half consisted of prawns and ... beer.
Straits Restoran, 99 Jalan Patani, Kuala Terengganu. Open till 1am.