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By Heather• 14 Dec 2015
Upon entering the restaurant, we were immediately greeted by Mery and her team and welcomed into their warm cosy environment. They aim for you to feel totally at home at Istana, and by the number of personal greetings going on around us, they’ve well succeeded. Apparently around 80% of their customers are regulars, and many come for the exact same dish week after week, so menu changing happens with care!
On asking about the difference between the sweet and mango lassi’s, Mery immediately steered me to the mango (convincing lady that Mery), which turned out to be a very good recommendation - intensely mango, light and very drinkable. Unlike some which are a bit like sucking a flavoured thickshake up a straw. And it went well with the garlic roti starter. Bonus.
I’d checked out the menu online prior (do you do that too?), and thought it quite Indian leaning with the likes of roti, masala, dhal, korma, lassi, varuval, dhal, mango chutney etc. There was a little Chinese laksa and five-spice stirfry, and a little Indonesian nasi lemak (a breakfast dish in Malayasia), rojak (Malay for ‘mixture’) and rendang (not Indian I’ve just learnt), so wasn’t sure exactly what we were in for.
Turns out Danny uses traditional Malaysian ingredients and Malaysian-sourced spices in his dishes – so more lemongrass, ginger, garlic, galangal and chili – and that converts a traditional Indian, Chinese or Indonesian dish into a Malay dish. For example, the butter chicken is honey sweetened with a lighter sauce, the lamb varuval has lemongrass influences rather than curry, the signature beef rendang has galangal notes, and the sago with coconut cream is light and delicate. Aha. And all dishes can be made mild, medium or hot to suit all tastes.
The roti is house-made, and was pleasingly layered and crispy. And the meats were all very tender in flavourful sauces. I snuck up to the kitchen to have a watch, and was mesmerised by the speed of roti twirling and stretching, taking several snaps before getting an unblurry one. Danny was mixing and swirling at pace in the background as well, and it brought to mind a finely tuned orchestra. Clearly the dishes are cooked to order and not paint by numbers here.
One of the biggest changes over the 21 years since Danny and Mery opened is the ability to source ingredients locally. Lemongrass now comes from Moore Wilson’s when once nary a can of coconut cream nor stick of lemongrass was to be had for love nor money. Nor a Malaysian restaurant to go to either apparently (hello Istana…).
The place was buzzing and near full by 7pm on a Friday night, with Christmas parties accounting for only about a quarter of the custom (but maybe half of the buzz courtesy of the group playing spin the bottle!) and four staff kept the wheels turning nicely considering the number of diners present.
I thoroughly enjoyed all my dishes, and the overall lightness I hadn’t expected. If you want to add some variety to your pre-Christmas training, Istana are conveniently open right up to Christmas Eve. And then again from the day after Boxing Day if you find yourself needing a weekly fix. 21 years young and going strong.
Georgia recommends some favourite Wellington beers to quaff during the colder months.