20 Hudson Street, Boston
Open SunĖThu, 11:30 amĖ10 pm; and FriĖSat, 11:30 amĖ11 pm
AE, MC, Vi
Beer and wine
No valet parking
Sidewalk-level access to most tables; bathroom down full flight of stairs
Golden Leaf is a Malaysian restaurant with an enormous menu that reflects Malaysiaís culinary fusion of native flavors, Chinese dishes from a 500-year-old settlement of overseas Chinese, South Indian dishes from another immigrant group, and popular dishes from neighboring Thailand. Itís also a large and wonderful space, evoking the tropics. You hit the beach on a pebble floor at the entrance and continue into a duplex space with wood planks, positioned among plexiglass. Look down and you see white stones as though you were in a hut built casually over a tropical beach.
Appetizers show off all aspects of the cuisine. From the Malay cookbook comes achat ($4.25), a quick salad of pickled cabbage, carrots, green beans, and cucumber in a sesame-peanut sauce that just wonít quit. The portion is enough for about four people.
Donít miss the "house special homemade tofu" ($5.25), fried into eight meltingly delicious pillows. (Soft tofu always tastes better than hard.) The dip is a sweet-sour-hot thing. Satay tofu ($5.25) isnít actually broiled on skewers like other satay; instead, itís four hollow wedges, like a club sandwich, deep-fried and stuffed with shredded vegetables and peanut sauce.
Back to Malaysia, otak-otak ($5.95) is described as "Malay Style BBQ Fishcake," but ours was a couple of what I would describe as shrimp tamales, tied up in banana leaves like long firecrackers. Theyíre fun to unwrap, but somewhat bland, although you can steal the hot sauce and hoisin sauce from the popia to liven them up. Papaya salad ($5.95) is likewise blander than its cousins in Vietnamese or Cambodian restaurants, but itís interesting to find surimi (false crab) among the shreds of green papaya, crunchy jicama, and such.
For something livelier, go for the stir-fried radish cake ($5.95). The radish-cake part is starchy like small gnocchi, but itís glazed with a funky sauce redolent of shrimp paste, hot pepper, and the iron of the wok. Iíd eat one of these for a light lunch.
In fact, the only appetizer I wouldnít have again is the vegetarian popia ($5.50), a soft, loose, bland excuse for a spring roll, stuffed with a lot of shredded veggies that donít add up to anything.
My favorite entrées were on the vegetable list. "Stir-Fried Baby Peapod Stems" ($11.95) didnít seem any smaller or more tender than the grown-up peapod stems you get in Chinatown, but the overall flavor of the dish had more hot pepper and perhaps a little less garlic. Stir-fried ladyfingers ($8.95) sound like charlotte russe gone wild, but weíre really eating okra ó somewhat underdone okra in another glaze of perhaps shrimp paste, scallions, and hot pepper. Itís less funky than the radish-cake appetizer and actually kind of tantalizing. For okra haters, underdone in stir-fry turns out to be almost slime-free.
The Malaysian hot-grilled catch of the day ($16.95) appeared to be a small sea bass from one of the live tanks in the basement. All the bass in these tanks were about the same size, indicating aquaculture. But the sea bass is still a flavorful little fish, a favorite of Chinese chefs in Boston for decades. The treatment here involves a lot of shrimp paste with some hot pepper ó not as much as the real aficionados want, of course, but some. The fish doesnít taste grilled so much as steamed in a wrapper of banana leaf.
For a little more money, you get the same fish in the guise of the simply named "Fish" ($18), in your choice of five sauces. The Cantonese-classic option was steamed with ginger and scallion ó a treatment that really suits this fish, enough to be worth the extra dollar. Thai style, marked with a one-pepper silhouette, was a sweet-sour sauce, more Chinese than Thai in my book, but also rather good. The other three choices involved "steam with pickled leaks and soy beans sauce"; curry; and puréed ginger and soy sauce. All these fish were served on large platters with handsome flowers made of shaved daikon radish and shredded carrot.
Again, there was a weak entrée on our table, "hot sizzling black pepper beef" ($12.95), which was not hot, not sizzling (although served on a metal plate used for platters that sizzle), and did not taste much of any kind of pepper. But it was certainly a generous dish of stir-fried sliced beef, red and green bell peppers, and red onions, such as any reader could make at home.
Regular rice ($1.50) is good and somewhat fragrant. Coconut rice ($1.50) is oilier, with a good aroma of coconut milk.
Iím not sure I got into all the corners of a complicated menu that lists plenty of poultry, noodles, fried noodles, and noodle soups (Malaysian cooks apparently never met a noodle they didnít like). We did even less damage to the drink menu, which includes Malaysian-style coffee and tea, Thai iced tea, and all the drinks that serve as desserts: iced drinks with various contents, smoothies, shakes, bubble tea, and more. We had beer ($3.95), good old Singha from Thailand and Tiger from Singapore. Tiger is a very light, highly carbonated pilsner, with just a quick burst of hoppy bitterness that I wouldnít put up against Budweiser as a beer, but it did go down well with this food.
Our servers brought us complimentary fried bananas in pastry pouches, very good with a drizzle of chocolate sauce, and little parallelograms of a solid-textured agar-agar jelly that was refreshing if almost tasteless. These things are not on the menu, but it does list the coconut-milk/yam concoction bubur chacha ó think hot sweet soup. And you might also ask for pulut hitam ($3), the black sticky rice pudding with coconut milk that I love when it turns up in Thai restaurants.
Service at Golden Leaf was exemplary on a quiet weeknight. Itís always a little scary in a nearly empty restaurant with a large menu ó whatís going to be old and awful? We couldnít find that at Golden Leaf, however. The dishes wandered from the menu descriptions, often by including shrimp or shrimp paste, so the allergic and the vegan should query in detail. The tropical décor does carry you along, even when the place is nearly deserted. It must appeal to a Trader Vic gene that we all carry.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.