By JENSEN LIM LEONG
Belacan Grill is a Southeast Asian restaurant that specializes in Malaysian food. Like most Southeast Asian food, Malaysian cuisine is noted for its exotic spices and length of time and effort in making each dish, with stories behind each bite. Head Chef Kean has been cooking for almost four decades professionally and his bistro pays homage to his Malaysian roots. His restaurant’s dishes are steeped in ingredients known to the region, which are typically seafood based with either rice or noodles inspired by tradition. One of the more popular flavorings is belacan, a fermented shrimp block unique to the cooking of the region.
Although the eatery is Malaysian in flavor, it also has many dishes similar to its neighbor, the tiny city-state of Singapore. The establishment has the décor of the Southeast Asian countries in the colonial days; not too far from the entrance awaits a rickshaw which was familiar transport of a bygone era.
I ordered the two appetizers, the Chicken Satay and Roti Canai. The Chicken Satay, essentially a chicken skewer, was seasoned and cooked well. The flavor was dynamic with a great juiciness and sweetness, while not being overbearing and too sweet. For a more powerful flavor, there was also a peanut sauce that paired very well with the satay, giving a stronger flavor if desired. There were also cucumbers to cleanse the palate so that each bite hit as hard as the first time. The Roti Canai is a flatbread dipped in a thin, mild curry that has hints of chicken and picante spices. Its flavorful gravy seeped into every flaky layer of the Roti Canai. The flatbread does lack a visual aesthetic, the flatbread is just flat on the plate with the curry right next to it, but makes up with a flakey mess. Unlike the satay’s array of colors, the Roti Canai was plated simply and its simplicity belies the great taste of the actual dish. The Satay cost $7 and the Roti Canai cost $3.50. Both came out in less than ten minutes after my order was placed.
For my entrée I ordered the Hainanese Chicken Rice. This is the national dish of Singapore with an unassuming name but is a truly complex dish. It sounds like only chicken and rice, but requires special processing because a typical recipe needs rice to be enhanced first with garlic and ginger before cooking it in chicken broth to give it depth and flavor. The chicken is parboiled, sometimes steamed or even baked, then drizzled with fragrant sesame oil before being served. Special dipping sauces for the chicken were made and my entrée included 3 of them: a soy sauce based sauce, a spicy red chili sauce, and the last sauce was an emulsification of ginger, salt and garlic in oil. Belacan Grill’s Chicken Rice has a distinct flavor. The chicken was cooked well with a savory taste and aroma. The half Hainan Chicken cost $13 and the addition of soup cost an additional $1.50.
I myself am of Singapore and Malaysian descent–better known as the Peranankan culture–and have been to Singapore several times. It is incredibly difficult to find any Southeast Asian food that is not Thai food outside of the region, which is truly a shame. The subtle differences between the cultural cuisines of the area give uniqueness to each country.
At the heart of Malaysian food is time and preparation. In that way it is very much like French cuisine. Hours are taken into preparation and cooking just to make one dish. The reason why a restaurant or home-cooked meal should taste better than any fast food establishment is because the diner should be able to tell the amount of effort and work that went into the dish. Chef Kean definitely shows a care and passion for his dishes, which can be savored in his food.
“I hope for customers to enjoy and experience the best Malaysian food has to offer,” said Chef Kean.
Belacan Grill Malaysian Bistro
17460 Enderle Center, 17th St
Tustin, CA 92780
Open Sunday 11:30AM-3PM, 5-8:30PM
Monday-Friday 11AM-3PM, 5PM-9PM
Saturday 11:30AM-3PM, 5-10PM