The name of this unpretentious little establishment on the edge of China Town means ‘feel the love’ in Malay and, corny as it sounds, you do feel the love that has gone into cooking its Malaysian and Singaporean classics. The big portions and small prices will stir your affections, too.
Situated next to the most northerly of Chinatown’s three arches, this is a no-nonsense place of tiled floors; white walls in need of a repaint; budget, blonde wood chairs and unadorned tables; paper napkins; and laminated menus with pictures of each dish. The chance to look out at bustling Soho gives the 45-cover ground floor dining room the edge over the identically decorated and slightly smaller basement, reached by a winding route across worn and discoloured grey carpet. Two low-ceilinged ‘bunkers’ at the back of the basement, each of which could seat eight at a pinch, might, depending on your mood, strike you either as exclusive and fun, or as a bit too much like exile in Siberia.
Even at 8 o’clock on a Sunday night, every ground floor table and most of those downstairs are taken, always a cheering indication. The clientele of tourists and regulars is casual, relaxed and civilised. Service is occasionally a tad overkeen but is informative, generally efficient and winningly sweet. The background music might initially seem an odd mix of Western and Eastern pop, but is just as it would be in countless venues throughout Southeast Asia.
It’s easy to forgive scuffed paintwork and utilitarian decor for big portions of more-than-competently realised dishes at sensible prices. Fried wantons (£3), which arrive with an unremarkable sweet chilli dipping sauce, are crisp on top, agreeably soft and chewy underneath, and filled with tasty, juicy, minced shrimp, chicken and vegetable with a good chilli kick. Spring rolls (£3) are impeccably crisp and grease-free and their filling – mainly chunky potato and chicken, again with a bold spike of chilli – is a welcome change from the more familiar, Chinese, bean sprout-stuffed version.
Roti canai with curry (£6.90) is fabulously flaky, squidgy flatbread, tender chicken and potato in a satisfying brown sauce of coconut, chilli, pepper and coriander. Curry laksa (£6.60) is a hearty, healthy, deeply fishy soup in which float thin noodles, prawns, slithers of scallop and squid, tofu, crunchy green veg and hard boiled eggs. Sambal prawns (£6.90) have a sweet edge and are surprisingly tame, bearing in mind both the fearless spicing of all the other dishes sampled and the fact that their sticky sauce contains countless slices of red chilli. There are plenty of big, juicy prawns and al dente ladies’ fingers, and an agreeable garnish of crunchy, dried shrimp.
Kangkong, also known as morning glory or water spinach, is a semi-aquatic green vegetable which grows wild in East and Southeast Asia and beyond. Its flavour is reminiscent of spinach, bok choy and even green beans. Rasa Sayang flash fries it in shrimp paste and serves it still crunchy with plenty of stewed garlic and a strong note of anchovy (£6.50). It’s a brilliant vegetable side which would also do service as a veggie main. All the dishes are underpinned by a hefty portion of perfectly cooked lemak (coconut) rice (£2) which great coconut flavour.
Traditionally, Eastern restaurants haven’t taken pudding very seriously but this is changing, and there’s a pleasingly wide selection at Rasa Sayang including classics like bubur cha cha (tapioca pearls and sweet potato in coconut milk) and ondeh-ondeh (little cakes made from glutinous rice flour and rolled in coconut). The equally well-known kueh dada (£3), soft, spongy, rolled pancakes with a sticky filling of desiccated coconut and palm sugar, is a yummy and surprisingly light conclusion to the meal.
This is not the place for oenophiles; there is but one red and one white wine, both a mere £2.50 a glass or £11 a bottle, and described simply as “house sauvignon blanc, France” and “house cabernet sauvignon, France”. Both prove unremarkable but perfectly serviceable. Beer lovers are also spared any umming and ahhing by the solitary presence of Tiger at £2.60 a bottle.
A nice touch is that bottles of sparkling water (50cl, £1.60) arrive both with glasses containing plenty of ice, and with additional glasses of iced tap water. There are plenty of intriguing soft options, some a little challenging to the uninitiated Western palate, like teh tarik (£1.70), a combination of black tea and condensed milk, or cin cau (£1.60), little pearls of grass jelly in a syrupy drink. Juices include carrot (£2.50) and watermelon (£3).
The Last Word
If your pockets are deep and you’re after destination dining and wow-factor decor, go elsewhere, but if three hefty courses of delicious, spicy, assured food with a couple of glasses of wine for £25 a head sounds more your kind of thing, add Rasa Sayang to your address book without delay.