KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 — We all go on food adventures from time to time.
Be it hopping from café to café in search of the best cup of coffee or driving across state lines at odd hours to catch a popular stall just as it opens, we have all been there: that sense of possibility and that thrill of anticipation.
Of course, things don’t always turn out as expected.
My friend Darren told me about a new shop he had recently spotted in his neighbourhood. One that sells Thai phở, which got me cracking my head since as far as I understood it, that rejuvenating bowl of broth, rice noodles, meat and fresh herbs is Vietnamese in origin.
But I’m always game to hunt down a new dish, even as I feared it might be an iffy rendition at best or nouveau fusion cuisine at worst. Let’s go on a food adventure!
After wandering one alley after another in Sri Petaling (which can be a maze for the uninitiated), Darren finally stumbles onto the correct alley again.
Not remembering the name of the shop, there was no way of using our friendly neighbourhood Google Maps, you see.
Alas, it turns out what he thought was phở was actually kuaitiao nuua, or Thai beef noodle soup made with kuaitiao sen lek, a type of narrow flat rice noodles.
I have yet to experience kuaitiao nuua better than the impressive bowls I savoured at Nuer Koo in Bangkok, so we decided to skip this shop, with apologies to the polite front-of-house who showed us their menu.
Would you consider this a food misadventure then?
Hardly. For as we start to head back in our original direction, we observe a placard at the entrance of a stairwell.
Walk upstairs, the sign promised, and we will enjoy all manner of beef delights on hotplates and hearty lamb stew in steaming pots.
Which is stirring advertising, and what have we got to lose? Certainly there won’t be any Thai phở for dinner tonight. Why not try something unforeseen?
When we reach the first floor, we can’t help but wonder if we had walked up the wrong flight of stairs.
With easels and oil paints in one corner and a mural of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (with a healthy dose of Picasso inserted, by way of the protagonist’s face) on another, this looks more like an art gallery or painting workshop.
The name of the shop, Dayeh Food Gallery, offers a clue — it is part Taiwanese-style diner, part creative art workspace for those wishing to release their inner painters.
We grab a table at the diner side and are greeted warmly by the proprietor (the Dàyé in question, or "Uncle” in Mandarin).
Deferring to his recommendations, we start with some cooling beverages — the homemade sour plum juice and lemongrass tea, the former of which has a subtle, smoky aroma.
To cool off further, we nibble on refreshing chilled cucumber salad (liángbàn qīng guā) while admiring the walls where giant rabbits in woodlands harkens to the picture books of Taiwanese artist Jimmy Liao such as The Sound of Colours and Mr. Wing.
My main is the first to be served: Braised Inside Skirt Steak (tiě bǎn bēng shā nǎn), which is a meat lover’s delight.
Melt-in-your-mouth cubes of carrot and radish provide some starches, while some Taiwanese pickled mustard greens help to balance out the richness of the dish.
Another unexpected pleasure is the softer tones of the conversations between the proprietor and his customers, be it in lilting Taiwanese Mandarin or Macanese Cantonese (gentler than the Hong Kong tongue).
If the sounds of the languages spoken are more pleasant, then so are the flavours presented: there are no harsh notes or sharp edges in either dialects or dishes.
There can be, however, some mild confusion. For instance, the "ramen” in the menu refers to Taiwanese-style noodles. So be prepared for something almost "QQ” or chewy but not quite Japanese style barikata (their version of al dente).
Still the clear broth, lightly suffused with Chinese herbs, is soothing and pairs well with the noodles. This is my carbohydrate of choice to go with braised skirt steak; you can ask for steamed rice instead too.
Other popular dishes include the massive claypot of braised beef, tendon and honeycomb tripe; salty chicken drumstick with garlic fried rice; pan-fried beef meatballs and beef mābō dōfu.
Finally Darren’s order of Dayeh Golden Lamb Stew (Dàyé huángjīn yáng nǎn bāo) arrives. This steaming hotpot is the shop’s signature dish and well worth waiting for.
I tend to stay clear of lamb dishes as they can be pungent and gamey but Dayeh’s rendition, a marriage between the Macanese original and a more Malaysian palate, is stellar.
For this dish, Australian lamb flaps are cooked in a braising blend that includes fermented bean curd and zhù hóu jiàng (fermented soybean sauce) for over two hours. The meat is tender, sheer joy when eaten with strips of silken bean curd sheets.
Flavourful rather than overly strong, Dayeh Golden Lamb Stew is an easy dish to sup on; the generous portions beg to be shared though.
And so we do, taking a bite of this dish and that, sharing in the convivial nature of the meal.
I am reminded of my fondest meals in Taipei, in small and nondescript shops where, yes, sometimes art and food come together in the most marvellous of ways.
It’s nice to have a plan but when things don’t go according to plan, we might enjoy the experience even more, no?
Dayeh Food Gallery 大爷食堂
1st floor, 12A-1, Jln Radin Bagus 8, Bandar Baru Sri Petaling, KL
Open daily (except Tue closed) 11am-9pm
Phone: 012-273 2030
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