Friday, 9 March 2012

Makan La, St Michael's Street

There are restaurants that I want to like. The omens for Makan La were good. It's tucked away in St Michael's Street, an escape route from Cornmarket with a good pub and some characterful buildings (and the Oxford Union and the homeless shelter on either side as a nice illustration of the two extremes of Oxford life). Underneath its English cousin the Nosebag, and staffed by one rather laconic waiter, the restaurant feels like a tearoom but actually serves a menu of reasonably priced Malaysian food until quite late in the evening. I'd love to say that this is a great local standby, good for a quick dinner when you can't be bothered to cook, but we left quite disappointed, for several reasons.

Things didn't start too badly. The Photographer had spring rolls (£3.85) which, despite being a touch greasy and not up to the Red Star gold standard, were fine. In turn, my deep-fried Har Kau (shrimp dumplings; £4.25) were unashamed in their greasiness, but their coating was crunchy and somehow light, their inside full of juicy shrimp. The taste and texture combined made me think of eating prawn crackers crossed with fish and chips: unhealthy but quite moreish. However, I've since looked up Har Kau and found that the term should actually refer to a steamed variety of Cantonese dim sum. Wikipedia tells me that Malaysian cooking has some Chinese elements (and if anyone knows more about this and feels that I'm being unfair, please say so) but, as with the 'dim sum' at AT Thai, this looks like a case of a menu item being passed off as an inauthentic version of another from a different cuisine altogether. I'm no expert on Asian food and don't demand to be treated as such, but this cavalier use of 'exotic' names - as if diners won't know any better - seems a bit depressing.

My Char Teay Tew (wok-fried flat noodles with squid and chicken; £6.95) was disappointing. I've had dishes like this before and much of the beauty is in the contrast of textures: chewy noodles, juicy vegetables, dryish chicken. Here, the squid was firm and buttery, but the noodles were overcooked and lacked bite and the chicken was soft and stringy. There was also a complete lack of seasoning, so that the whole thing tasted insipid and almost mushy. It was partially rescued by being doused in sauce from the Ayam Papriek (chicken with chilli, garlic, onions and green beans; £5.95; the accompanying boiled rice was £1.95) that the Photographer chose.

This was acceptable, although the chicken was soft and would have been more satisfying if fried rather than poached. The sauce had a sweet and sour, pineapple-y, vague hot flavour. It was advertised as containing chilli, and the Photographer asked it to be made extra spicy because, as noted previously, he likes that kind of thing. However, the anticipated tongue-tingling heat was entirely lacking (even I thought so).

It looks like 'proper' Malaysian cuisine can be very spicy, and while I can understand that this might be toned down for a English palate, there's certainly a market for fiery flavours (why else does the vindaloo exist?) and generally adventurous food in this country. Makan La doesn't go as far as having segregated menus, but my experience there made me think that authenticity, and even quality, have been sacrificed for what whoever is cooking imagines people in the UK will like. Shame.

Makan La, 6 St Michael's Street, OX1 2DU

(I've given the website prices; unfortunately I didn't keep the receipt but I think what we paid might have been slightly more in each case, but not significantly so.)

Makan la on Urbanspoon

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