Popia spring rolls at Bentara

The Spice of Life

Bright-smiling chef Hasni “Jeff” Ghazali (pictured second) is an exceedingly affable kind of tyrant.

Bentara, the Malaysian restaurant he owns with his partner, Bill Christian, confronts us with the tyranny of choice. Quick examination reveals a menu digging fairly deep into a cuisine Ghazali once described to us as a “heavenly harmony among Chinese, Thai and Indian foods.” That variety is compounded by the fact that Bentara offers diners a choice of spice level and of main ingredients—veggies, tofu, chicken, shrimp or beef—in most entrees, as well as a lot of flexibility when it comes to accommodating peculiar wants and needs. Meanwhile, the wine list is probably the most extensive you’ll ever see, as much almanac as menu.

Trying to make definitive choices in a context like this is especially confounding for newcomers. During a recent visit, the people at the next table had never been to Bentara before, and they weren’t familiar with Malaysian food generally. They had questions and, given the royal feast that was resting in front of yours truly, they figured I had answers.

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Here they are.

The Poh Pia, a.k.a. spring rolls (pictured first), were quite nice that day. Wrapped in thin rice paper, they fried up light and crispy like you want, not bready and soggy like you don’t, and the oil level felt indulgent but not guilt-inducing. Filled with understated flavors including cabbage, carrots and cucumber, the rolls themselves were mostly for texture. The great flavor in the dish came from the bright red dipping sauce, sour, sweet and with a zing courtesy of a handful of suspended chili seeds.

Another strong starter was the Roti Chanai (pictured third), a flat bread the kitchen folded into a little golden mountain on a snow-white plate rising above a ramekin-bound orange lake of curry-lentil sauce. The roti was soft and supple, chewy like a good bread crust but flaky like a pie crust, especially where it had browned. The accompanying sauce was quite mild, and you can always order it to come at the same time as your entree, which a waiter named Orlando highly recommended; he likes to dip it into a variety of sauces and liquids.

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One of those worth having around is the orange-red broth of the big-portioned Mee Soup Istimewa (pictured fourth). It was tomatoey and a bit sweet, with an understated nuttiness delivered via crushed peanut. It was also a true medium spicy—lingering on at a consistent and pleasant maximum, and not spiraling out of control until you can’t taste anything anymore. Submerged cabbage and greenery added welcome bite and healthfulness, while cool white bean sprouts, served on top along with sprinkled snippets of chive, were there to refresh the palate as needed. The egg noodles piled just beneath the surface—a non-egg rice option is also available—are luscious and, for reference, a little thicker than a standard soba noodle. Though it probably isn’t the right phrase to use in a Malaysian context, the soup’s noodles were slightly al dente, pillowy inside with a shade of resistance on the outside. An analogy could be made between them and the thin medallions of tofu scattered throughout the soup, with their chewier outer skin and smoother interior.

Tofu was also a component of the excellent vegetable Kari (pictured fifth) I tried. Among a stellar mix of vegetables in the dish were some mouthwatering specimens of baby bok choy. Left whole, and cooked quickly enough to soften them up without obliterating their integrity, their signature verdant, lightly acidic taste shined through, even while drenched in a creamy coconut curry sauce (the flavor of which depends a great deal on how spicy you ask the restaurant to make it). Crisp textures of wilted string beans and thin-sliced carrot rounds balanced the soft, velvety feel of the big, luxurious slabs of comforting potato that anchored the dish.

A dish I didn’t try, but which that table next to me did, is called Kerutuk “Kelantan” (pictured sixth). It throws a seemingly ludicrous mix of seasonings—“coriander, fennel seed, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and chilies”—into a coconut milk stew of baby potatoes and your choice of beef, chicken or tofu.

Even with something as tried and true as meat and potatoes, Bentara can’t help but spice things up.

76 Orange Street, New Haven (map)
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Sun-Thurs 5-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 5-10:30pm
(203) 562-2511

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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