As Valentine’s Day approaches, Cupid lurks around every corner, bow drawn, waiting to pierce your heart and your wallet. Societal pressure demands monetary output, and, in many cases, if you’re not willing to put out, neither is your date. But fear not, reader, there are restaurants in New Haven where you can enjoy a top-notch dining experience without breaking the bank. The place to go? Ninth Square.
Ninth Square is on the verge of becoming New Haven’s SoHo; one of many parts of the city abandoned when the manufacturing industry collapsed, the area is filled with derelict commercial buildings waiting to be bought, renovated and filled with overpriced boutiques. Bentara, on Orange between Crown and Chapel, was one of the first businesses to move into the area (in 1997) and future entrepreneurs would do well to follow their example. Serving up consistently good food at consistently reasonable prices, Bentara is on its way to becoming a New Haven landmark.
I confess that I don’t know the first thing about Malaysian cuisine, but if Bentara is any indicator, I think I’ll come to love it. Most of the dishes are variations on a theme (noodle dishes, curries, soups), and the menu does an excellent job of explaining what goes in to each and every dish. Bentara also does well in disposing of those Byzantine systems of rating spiciness — “I’d like my curry 6.7 spicy, please” — that plague so many other restaurants. Dishes are offered mild, regular or spicy, and you get what you ask for.
“So now I’m here,” you ask, “what can I order that will make my date think I’m a world-wise Renaissance man, intimately familiar with Malaysian cuisine?” A great way to start a meal at Bentara is with any one of several roti dishes. Roti is griddle-fried unleavened ghee bread (ghee is clarified butter and is the base of almost every Indian dish) often filled with meat, eggs or vegetables. The way to go at Bentara is roti murtabak ($7.50), which is filled with ground beef, onions, eggs and spices. You won’t go wrong with either of the two accompanying sauces — curry lentil or sweet-and-sour red onion. Reminiscent of stuffed naan but with a distinctively different, presumably Malaysian, flavor, the roti are spectacular.
The calamari salad ($7.95) is crisp and light, with just enough fishiness to keep things interesting. Calamari, diced cucumber, tomato and red onions are dressed in a sweet sambal-and-lime-juice dressing. Sambal is a generic term for pepper-based hot sauces, and the sambal in this dish mixes with the lime juice to make a perfect dressing for this refreshing salad.
Curry is usually a safe bet for South Asian cuisine, and Bentara is no exception. Their basic curry, kari ($17.95), is the protein of your choice (beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu) simmered with Chinese eggplants, carrots, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans and baby bok choy in a coconut curry sauce. The dish, best described as brown and lumpy, leaves something to be desired in the aesthetics department, but your taste buds will have no reason to complain. Creamy and spicy, the flavors of the dish are bound together by the slight sweetness of the coconut milk.
A cheaper way to go is one of Bentara’s noodle soups, giant bowls of broth, noodles and vegetables available meatless or with chicken, beef, shrimp or a combination. Mee bandung ($11.95 – $13.95 depending on protein) is egg noodles in a thin, hot and spicy broth with cabbage, carrots, yu choy (a green related to bok choy that tastes a little like broccoli rabe), bean sprouts, crispy fried shallots, green onion, sliced boiled eggs (“a sign for prosperity,” according to the menu), sliced tofu and lime. There’s a lot of food in this soup, and it’s fun to fish around in the broth, never knowing what you’ll come up with. Warning: This noodle-slurping, broth-splashing is not good date food. Save it for another visit.
All of the food at Bentara has a distinctive flavor that I could characterize only as “Malaysian” — admittedly, a pretty weak description for a food writer. So I did some intensive, journalistic research. Then I threw it away and visited the Bentara Web site, where I learned that the basis for their seasonings is a five-spice mixture of cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, cloves and fennel seeds, flavors rarely used in Western cuisine for savory cooking and almost never in combination. In Eastern cuisines, however, five-spice mixtures are a staple, and every region has their own variety. Bentara’s take on Malaysian five-spice is terrific and gives an exotic kick to all of their dishes.
So on Tuesday, impress your date and skip Ivy Noodle. Save your wallet and skip Union League. Take your Valentine to Ninth Square and try some Malaysian food. You won’t be disappointed. Dip your toes into Malaysian cuisine and dive into Bentara.