You don't have to count chopsticks on McMullen-Booth Road in Pinellas County to see it has a serious density of Asian restaurants. From about Alderman Road down to Enterprise, there are enough pad Thai and dynamite rolls to throw a major party. One cuisine that has been heretofore lacking, though, is Malaysian. It's a shame because it's a humdinger: a cuisine that is at once spicy, homey, sweet, bright and sometimes a little kooky. Knock-your-socks-off shrimp paste, high notes of lemongrass and lime leaf, turmeric, ginger, smoldering curries, sweet-sour tamarind, and blistering little chiles — it's a swirl of heady flavors.
In August, Lee Onesty, her sister, Selina Chin, and her brother-in-law, Foo Yong Phua, set about changing that. They opened Bunga Raya, a pretty little restaurant in a Palm Harbor shopping center sandwiched between a fitness center and a Smoothie King. Hedging their bets with a familiar lineup of Japanese and Chinese dishes, they've quietly unveiled the allures of Malaysian cuisine.
There are reasons for the dearth. First, this country has had very little immigration from Malaysia and Indonesia (there has been more flow to the U.K. from Malaysia and to the Netherlands from Indonesia, given their colonial histories). And second, there hasn't been the concerted culinary outreach that we've seen from some countries. (About 10 years ago, the Thai government launched a major campaign to promote its cuisine internationally.) And third, it might be just a touch more exotic than many timid diners feel comfortable with.
Take, for instance, the national breakfast of Malaysia: nasi lemak, which is rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, topped with all kinds of zestiness, from anchovy to peanuts, lamb curry, chili sauce, egg and pickles. A giant leap from corn flakes, for sure. But at Bunga Raya, you don't have to eat it for breakfast; their version ($11.95) is topped with a fried egg, fried chicken wings and a smoldery scoop of housemade sambal chili pepper sauce.
My favorite dish at Bunga Raya is Rendang Beef ($13.95, offered only as a special), something I've tinkered with at home with mixed success, so I know the effort that goes into the scoop of brownish-beige meat over rice. Cubes of beef are massaged with a paste of minced onion, lemongrass and chiles, slow cooked and set adrift in a thick coconut-curry sauce. This soft, homogeneous dish is lovely but possesses a mysterious cumulative heat that gets you sniffling.
But before you've dived in there, or into a bowl of bouncy sambal-tinged shrimp and still-crisp asparagus paired with jasmine rice ($13.95), share an order of Roti Canai ($4), practically the national dish of Malaysia. Here it gets respectful treatment, the crispy, hot, layered bread paired with a shallow bowl of mild curry sauce dotted with a couple of cubes of soft potato. It's utterly accessible, this one, the buttery, flaky layers drinking in the mild sauce in a sumptuous way that translates anywhere.
Over the years, I've witnessed many restaurateurs say to themselves, "Hmm, let's add a sushi bar. Everyone loves sushi!" Often it is perfunctory, with the whiff of something-for-everyone desperation. At Bunga Raya, Onesty has the chops to pull it off. She was a sushi chef and then general manager of a couple of the Kobe Japanese Steakhouses in the area. Her presentations, from the dramatic Dragon Roll ($13.95) to more understated handrolls ($5.25-$7.50), are attractive and sophisticated, with a short list of exactingly fresh fish.
Still, it would be a shame to spend all your time on a platter of spicy tuna roll ($6.50) or even chicken fried rice ($8.75) if it meant forgoing a bowl of spicy Malaysian curry laksa ($10.95). This coconut-based curry soup is packed with noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, shrimp, delicate fish balls, bean curd puffs and wisps of tender chicken, sambal chili paste painting the whole thing a tingly sunset-orange.
A short beer and wine list adequately supports the menu, and a lineup of locally made Holi-Moli individual cheesecakes, in flavors from cinnamon to salted caramel, finishes things off sweetly, if a little incoherently. But if the promise of familiar dessert gets a few more of the gastronomically shy to give exotic Malaysian cuisine a whirl, I'm all in.