REVIEW: 'So, after nine years you are back' said Silas Madasamy when I poked my head into the kitchen at Rasa the other night.
He seemed disappointed, although quite why I don't know, for since that first review I've twice listed Rasa's masala dosa among Wellington's top 10 dishes in Warren Barton's Wine Guide.
Actually it matters not a jot what I or any other critic might think about Rasa, since Wellingtonians long ago made up their minds.
Rasa has always been, and remains, one of those uproariously busy little ethnic cafes which captures the soul of the Cuba Quarter. It seats only 45, so you are often lucky to get a table.
However, at Rasa they'll take your cellphone number and suggest you go somewhere for a drink and they'll call you when the next table is ready. 'And they do come back,' laughs Mrs Madasamy, 'when they could've easily gone somewhere else.'
As with any successful eatery, the food is good, but that's only part of the story: with its bright red and turmeric paint scheme, its cool Parisian cafe tables and its bicycle with tiffin carrier whimsically strapped to the wall, the Rasa interior has the panache so badly needed in other ethnic cheapies, with their makeshift renovations, eccentric paint jobs, bad art, decay and grime.
Which is another thing to be said for Rasa: the place always looks clean. On top of that, the service is great, the reception from Madasamy's wife and daughter being unfailingly friendly and the delivery of dishes nice and swift.
Because I already knew the masala dosa here to be exemplary, I'd decided to forgo the pleasure this one time, for the sake of seeing whether there is life at Rasa beyond it.
As it happens: our lamb curry was gorgeous, its spicy gravy partially thickened by cubes of potato; Malay Mee Goreng - fresh noodles fried with seafood, onion and peanut sauce - was revved up nicely with fiery sambal and ample belachan.
But how longingly I gazed at the golden scrolls of dosa, like so many yummy university diplomas, as they passed by our table, remembering how Madasamy entrusts this task to no other chef, since only his turn out perfectly every time: crisp on the outside, soft and slightly sour in the middle.
By way of compensation, the lovely fresh coconut and tomato chutneys that come with the dosa cropped up unexpectedly on our vegetarian thali. In that both these chutneys are slightly sweet, they would not pass muster with the traditional South Indian palate - especially not when eaten with savoury dosai.
But as it happens, Kiwis rather than South Indians form the customer base here and, let's be real, it's now the fashion among European chefs to borrow the Thai idea of mixing sweet with acid and savoury, to the point where the modern customer now expects it.
The same adaptation to the Kiwi palate occurs with the laksa.
It's listed on the menu as Penang Laksa yet, scrumptious as it is, it seems more like Wellington's ubiquitous Melaka-style curry laksa, with its familiar coconut cream base, its halved hard- boiled egg, its fishballs and its prawns.
The truth be known, most Kiwis would probably dislike the somewhat challenging version of Nyonya cooks in Penang, who use a mash of oily mackerel-type fish, an abundance of Vietnamese mint and a hefty dose of preserved prawn paste - but none of that beloved coconut cream.
However, according to Dr Ong Jin Teong, writing in his 2010 book Penang Heritage Food, there exists a second laksa in Penang - Siamese Laksa - which has no mackerel or Vietnamese mint, and heaps of coconut cream.
So if that's Rasa's story, they should stick to it.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Curry puffs are the ultimate Malaysian fusion food, for although they probably evolved from the Indian samosa, the pastry is English-style short crust or puff pastry, an idea thought to have been introduced by the Hainanese Chinese, who used to be cooks to the colonial British in Malaya. Furthermore, the shape of the curry puff owes a lot to the Portuguese empanada, so is perhaps from Melaka. In Malaysia, curry puffs are often filled with lamb or chicken, but Rasa's are lighter and, in a way, even more delicious for simply containing spiced onion, potato and kumara. They are further improved with a big dipping bowl of Rasa's house-made peanut sauce.
RASA MALAYSIAN & SOUTH INDIAN RESTAURANT
200 Cuba St
Ph: 384 7088
Open for lunch Mon-Fri 12pm- 2pm, dinner: Mon-Sun 5.30pm- late
Price range of mains: $13-$20
Wine list: N/A
Cost: $65 for two (excluding wine)
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