I don't know why it is but I always think of Malaysia as the Milton Keynes of South-east Asia. It should be exotic and Somerset Maughamy - redolent of plantation adultery and monsoon-lashed kampongs. But instead these days I get a strong whiff of economic survey, the sort of thing you pull out of your newspaper that's full of articles about state-of-the-art assembly plants and broadband take-up.
Say "Malaysia" and I see a giant container port, rather than some Conradian waterfront full of agonised colonials trying to drown their consciences in arak. On first acquaintance, Awana, a new Malaysian restaurant run by Eddie Lim, managing director of the successful Mango Tree in Grosvenor Place, only reinforces this prejudice. This may have quite a bit to do with the presence of a big party from a Malaysian shipping company, giving speeches and having themselves photographed with their business colleagues. It feels like the kind of place where you'd seal an important microchip outsourcing contract over a £120 bottle of Glenfiddich.
Then again Awana isn't aiming to be your friendly local curry joint - although "local" may have different connotations if your locality is centred on Brompton Cross. What Awana aims to do is offer a more aspirational and purist version of Malaysian cuisine, as others have done for Thai and Indian cooking. This worried me a little before we ate - since some of my favourite Malaysian dishes are street foods, which don't always benefit from culinary refinement. Fortunately our starters turned out to be robustly true to their origins. Kepak ayam goreng (£5.50), a dish of chicken wings with a chilli dipping sauce, were not the wizened, stubbly dog-chews you get in some restaurants but plump chunks of meat with a light crisp coating and my wife's tofu goreng (£6.80) was infinitely better than it might sound in theory - a delicate white curd inside a perfectly fried coating, like a health-food version of a deep fried Mars bar. Two versions of satay are good too - one of beef and one of butterfish - an unctuous white fish which lives up to its name with a lactic breadth of flavour.
The butterfish is so creamily rich that it works even better when, as ikan panggang (£12.50), it is grilled in a banana leaf wrapping and topped with a hot and sour marinade. The kari ayam (£13.50) wasn't quite as successful, a soupy chicken curry with snake beans, which was heavily dependent on turmeric but lacked the flavours which might have rounded out that slightly flat, dusty spice. It did all its work at the back of the tongue and left the tastebuds at the front feeling distinctly neglected. A beef rendang (£14), on the other hand, was densely flavoured, with a delayed kick of heat beautifully smoothed out by coconut cream. Cha bee hoon (£14.20) and nasi goreng kampong (£11.50) - a rice noodle dish and Malaysian fried rice were both well-cooked versions of essentially humble truckstop dishes - the nasi goreng arriving with the traditional topping of a fried egg. We also ate acar, a crunchy vegetable salad similar to a Thai som tum, which was disappointingly mild.
Any anxiety that the food would be gentrified into insufficiency turned out to be unfounded. In fact portions were so heftily satisfying that we eventually opted to fight over just three desserts with five spoons. Dadar - green pancakes stuffed with spiced, sweetened coconut and drizzled with palm sugar syrup and warm coconut milk - provoked the most intense clash of cutlery, but there wasn't a great deal left of either of the other candidates - a chocolate pudding with white chocolate jelly and sago kastard - a baked custard studded with pearls of sago. I have convulsive memories of this substance from school, which are still capable of sending an involuntary shudder up my oesophagus - but this dessert nearly laid the ghost.
I'm not sure, in the end, that the size of the bill is quite in proportion to how far the food rises above more modest competitors - but if a member of the Malaysian Chamber of Commerce is paying the bill you won't have to worry about that.
Awana,85 Sloane Avenue, London SW3 (020-7584 8880)
Meal for five £184.50 including drinks and service
Side Orders: More Malaysian
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