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Sambal – The Malaysian Food Experience

I wish I could say that my dining experience at Sambal was a good one. There were a couple of really nice dishes that I could see myself coming back for, and one or two others that showed the potential for greatness but had just missed the mark. However, the service of one of their floor staff utterly ruin what would otherwise have been a fairly positive experience.

To be fair, there could have been actions taken sooner to minimise the impact of the negative experience. Though, I question how much responsibility the diner should bears towards the outcome of their dining experience.

A booking was place two days prior to ensure that we secured a table for a busy Saturday evening. From Friday though to Sunday, the restaurant offers an assortment of Nyonya kueh – bite-sized desserts that range from cookies to cakes to puddings. It was something I had been keen to try out. For some reason the booking was lost, however this minor setback was dealt with within a few minutes and we were shown to our table.

The restaurant was a buzz with activity, operating at close to capacity. Service at this stage of the night was fast and attentive, with appropriate questions being ask regarding our order.

There were no issues with the service of the food too as it arrived in a timely fashion.

Loh Bak ($8.80 for 2 rolls) – A crispy skin of bean curd sheet encases a filling of shredded pork and leek flavoured with Chinese five spice (clove, cinnamon, fennel seeds, sichuan pepper and star anise). Meaty, well seasoned with a nice depth of flavour, this was a great way to whet the appetite. It was one of the best dishes of the night.

Penang Char Kway Teao ($14.80) – Upon ordering this dish, we were given the option of the four levels of spiciness – none, mild, medium and hot. We went with medium as we planned to order a sambal dish (i.e. one that contains the spicy, fishy condiment that the restaurant is named after).

Perhaps it’s just my personal experience with this ubiquitous, hawker-style stir-fried noodle dish in Sydney, but one thing that is often found lacking is wok hei; the “breath of the wok”. This imparts a distinctly smoky aroma that is often sought after by aficionados of this Malaysian favourite. Wok hei was something that was not lacking in this dish, which came as a pleasant surprise. The seasoning on the other hand left much to be desired as its absence left the dish tasting of nothing but smokiness and spicy heat.

A dudicious application of soy sauce livened up the dish considerably, turning it from a fairly average dish to a noteworthy one.

Sambal’s Prawns – with shell (Dry) ($28.80) – Note that the dish is Sambal’s prawns and not sambal prawns, which was what we thought we were ordering. This small variation made a world of difference as what we received was not what we expected. When ordering the char kway teao, I specifically asked about the spiciness of the Sambal’s Prawns, pointing to it on the menu. Our waitress stated that it was a hot dish, so the decision was made to go with a lower level of spiciness with the char kway teao so that our palates wouldn’t be overwhelmed with a burning hellfire on two fronts.

Whist there was evidence of a slice of chili on the plate, and the menu even states that it contains “the chef’s unique sambal paste” there was none to speak of in the dish itself. We thought that perhaps the prawns were marinated in sambal but there wasn’t any evidence of it to be found. Perhaps the paste is unique in the same way as the Emperor’s new clothes are.

Failed expectations and disappointment aside, the dish itself wasn’t too bad. The prawns were just batter-fried prawns. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The real standout for me was the chunks of delicious, deep-fried eggplant, which was crisp on the outside and moist and tender on the inside.

Mamak Rojak (Nyonya Salad) ($17.80) – This dish was disappointingly one-note in taste (i.e. sweet), though perhaps this is how it’s meant to be as I’ve found it to be the same at one other Malaysian restaurant in Sydney. The textures were a redeeming factor with the crispness of julienne cucumber, bean sprouts, bang kwang (yam bean), fried tofu, boiled egg and crispy prawn crackers.

Tau Eu Bak ($17.80) – Though I would normally wax lyrical about any dish that incorporates pork belly, I was a little let down by this one. The pork could have done with more time in the braise as it ended up tasting under-seasoned on the inside and not as soft as it could have been. The sauce itself was fine and the hard boiled egg, once liberally coated in the sweet soy braising sauce, was pretty nice too.

Inchee Kabin ($16.80) – How can you go wrong with fried chicken cooked on the bone? You could, but this was done rather well.

The “Nyonya spices” used to season the chicken tastes strangely similar to Keen’s curry powder. The breast pieces were dry, but that’s fairly standard fare for most fried chicken. A thin, tamarind-flavoured dipping sauce helped with the dryness of these pieces, as well as cut through the fat.

Ice Cendol ($6) – Ice cendol was ordered to be consumed along with the meal as a drink of sorts rather than as a dessert; something I picked up during my travel to Malaysia.

It’s a dessert/drink that consists of a mound of ice, a generous helping of soft, pandan-flavoured green “worms” and kidney beans immersed in coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar syrup). It may not be pretty, but it is one of the best examples I’ve found in Sydney to date, with a nice, refreshing balance of flavours, textures and sweetness.

Kueh Talam ($5.50 for 8 pieces) – As stated previously, an assortment of Nyonya kueh are available from Friday through to Sunday. This is where the dining experience headed in a distinctly southerly direction.

An enquiry was made as to what kueh was available. “Kueh talam”, was the response from our waitress; the same one that also incorrectly informed us that the Sambal’s Prawns were spicy.

“Is that it? Only one?” I asked?

“Yes, kueh talam.”

As there was only one option to choose from and given the whole point of being there on a Saturday was to try out their kueh, I went ahead with the order. Just prior to this, we’d requested some takeaway boxes to take home the surplus. So, when she returned with eight white-on-green layered kueh in a sealed takeaway container, we thought she’d mistakenly assumed that we wanted the kueh to take away.

“Oh, I’m sorry. We were looking to have it here,” I said. A look of confusion from the waitress and a long pause ensued. “We would like to have it here please. Can you please serve it up however you normally would?” I continued. She walked away without a word, seemingly to plate up our kueh.

For the next twenty minutes we waited – nothing. We called over another waiter and asked about our order, pointing out the person with whom we had placed the original order. A moment later, our waitress returns with the same box of keuh in the takeaway container.

“Is that how you serve the kueh to have here”? I asked politely, but was getting rather frustrated by this point. That same puzzled look crossed her face. Having wasted enough time, I said I’d take it as it is. We promptly received some forks and finally commenced the dessert course.

Kueh talam, as made by Sambal restaurant, is not what I would consider to be one of my favourite desserts. Actually, quite the opposite, as it ranks as a contender for one of the worst I’ve ever had. The base layer is flavoured with pandan and is slightly gelatinous. On its own it’s alright; a little under-sweet for my liking, but otherwise ok. Then you top that off with a jelly-like coconut layer that tastes of the Dead Sea. Pandan? What pandan? All you could taste was an intensely salty coconut flavour. It was so bad that two of us stopped on our first piece and one person couldn’t even finish theirs.

We left the 5 1/2 pieces of kueh to lie fallow on the table as we made our way out to pay the bill. Whilst I’m not normally one to speak my mind in detail when asked if we’d enjoyed our meal, when the question was raised by the front of house manager, I felt compelled to mention the unpalatable kueh. That’s when the swift kick to the nether regions really found its purchase, as we’d discovered out that not only was there another variety of kueh (kueh serimuka), but they were in a large tray ready to be served. What’s worse, when we were offered a taste of the kueh serimuka, with its coconut flavoured glutinous rice base with a pandan flavoured top layer, it was really, really good. It left me with the suspicion that the waitress was trying to push the kueh talam to get rid of it.

I’ll admit, in retrospect there’s much that could have been done to avert, or at least better manage this dining experience. Sending back the Sambal’s Prawns and char kway teow, or even making note of them to the manager. We might have also asked specific questions about what a dish consists of, rather than throwing caution to the wind because there was seemingly only one option available. Perhaps raise the issue regarding poor service with the manager at the time it occurs.

Whilst some things could have been done better, how much responsibility should a diner bear, if at all, for their dining experience? Should one need to point out deficiencies in service or unmet expectations as they occur? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Despite the negative experience, there are redeeming aspects of Sambal that would warrant future patronage. The cendol and loh bak, for instance. Perhaps the char kway teao too if it’s properly seasoned. Hopefully, the dining experience will be better the next time around.

the heart of food dined at Sambal by the courtesy of Malaysia Kitchen Australia.

285-297 Lane Cove Rd, North Ryde
(02) 9889 7977

Trading Hours
Mon-Fri: 11:30am-2:30pm
Sat-Sun: 11am-3pm

Take Away:5.30pm-10pm

View the heart of food: map

Sambal on Urbanspoon

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Gaby August 29, 2011, 9:58 am

    An unfortunate experience. I wouldn’t go back, even when a couple of dishes were outstanding.

    • Simon August 29, 2011, 11:57 pm

      The cendol was pretty darn good though… :)

  • mademoiselle délicieuse September 2, 2011, 7:47 am

    It’s that fateful alignment of expectation, less-than-desirable service and perhaps an off night in the kitchen. I’ve been to places where we’ve eaten week in week out and this sort of thing can still happen. If there’s dishes which are worth going back for, then I say give them another chance!

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