Malaysian For All

A midday meal at Bentara, an authentic Malaysian must-try on Orange Street, proves to be the perfect choice. This ethnic cuisine is scrumptious. Upon devouring plate after plate of deliciousness*, I visit with the man behind the magic, Chef Hasni “Jeff” Ghazali. He graciously walks me through his food-focused upbringing and his present day pride and joy.

First thing’s first, though. If you’re not yet familiar with what Malaysian means when it comes to cuisine, Chef Jeff makes it super simple: “Consider the heavenly harmony among Chinese, Thai and Indian foods.” This flavor threesome proves a helpful way to break it down for someone new to these eats. While it’s still recognizable, reminiscent of something experienced before, it also offers something different, a welcome new twist for your taste buds. As Chef Jeff says,“This food is so unique! An explosion of flavor.” No argument there, given the nuanced menu, punctuated by a selection of spices and exotic combinations.

Hasni Ghazali came to America in 1983 and settled in Connecticut around 1995.

Bentara Restaurant
76 Orange Street (map)
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 562-2511 | niza@bentara.com
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Sun-Thurs 5-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 5-10:30pm
www.bentara.com 

Though he and business partner Bill Christian didn’t open their spacious 150 capacity establishment in New Haven until 1997, Chef Jeff has “…been cooking ever since I can remember. My mother opened the first Bentara in our hometown in 1978. I grew up cooking with her. I was the only one out of seven family members that she allowed to be in the restaurant kitchen to cook with her.” Clearly, this guy’s got the chops. Mom said so.

His expertise requires working with the freshest ingredients, practicing traditional cooking methods and preparing every dish to order. These commitments mean a little more time in the kitchen but also a happier customer. “I’m very picky,” he admits.

As a vegan, I too am quite choosy and was interested to learn how he treated bases and

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stocks, which are often secretly laced with fish. To my satisfied surprise, it turns out that, at Bentara, only a single dish that would otherwise qualify as strictly vegetarian contains the essence of shrimp. Chef Jeff told me that up to a quarter of all orders are vegetarian.Thus he made the conscious – and conscientious – decision to modify ingredients and cater to the ever-growing number of so-inclined diners. “We want to make sure everyone who walks into the restaurant is happy and comfortable.”

This applies both to the selection of foods as well as the atmosphere. He adds, “It’s a social place. As long as you’re having fun, that’s all we care about.” In addition to these things, Chef Jeff also invests in vino. “[We’ve been] beefing up our wine list, making it one of the best in the county.” He hopes that this will draw wine connoisseurs who may not know Malaysian yet, but do know their reds and whites. From there, the rest will inevitably follow. As Chef Jeff says, “We rely on word of mouth.” So, please, praise far and wide once you dine. You can bet I am.

What I tried:

  • Kari (with tofu and vegetables in a coconut curry sauce)
  • Tofu Sumbat (stuffed tofu served with spicy peanut sauce)
  • Kelantanese Kerutuk (with tofu and vegetables in spiced coconut milk).

All three were serious winners.

Other praised dishes at the table were the Roti Chanai (unleavened ghee bread served with lentil curry sauce) and Poh Pia Goreng (crisp vegetarian spring rolls served with sweet chili sauce).

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Nell Alk is a culture and lifestyle writer and reporter. Her work has appeared in myriad publications, both print and online, including Paper Magazine, Manhattan Magazine, Interview Magazine and Rolling Stone, among others. Learn more about her here.

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