It was nice to be back in Penang. It was very hot and humid though. Not really an issue for me as I enjoy the heat, especially after a not so great summer in Hobart. It helps having a car with good air condition to drive. My sister’s car, that is. I get to explore and go to places where normally I would not have gone due to the distance, unless I catch a taxi.
I felt a bit strange that I was not tired on my first day in Penang. I had less than four hours sleep. I went to a corner “kopitiam” (typical Penang coffee shop) for “keng cheng mee hon mee” (fried vermicelli and hokkien noodle combination plain) topped with deep fried egg and a hot herbal Chinese tea for MYR$2.90 (about AUD$1) at 7:30am. This was a very quick and simple early breakfast meal. The various types of noodles were served in stainless steel trays. They were normally fried plain with no other ingredients. The idea was to top the noodles with other dishes; such as deep fried eggs, curries, fried chicken, depending on the customer. I usually have the noodles as is or top with a fried egg. Some other customers in the kopitiam were having soft boiled eggs in a glass cup or butter and “kaya” toast.
By mid morning, my partner and I were ready to hit the town. I had the first experience of driving my sister’s car, and the first time driving in Penang after many years. Penang streets are busy. Not just busy, but extremely busy and there are no driving rules on the road. There are rules, but drivers in Penang do not have rules. The way to drive in Penang is to be patient, very patient and it is like who dares who on the road. There are many motorbikes on the road. Imagine Star Wars and the galactic fighting scene in space with all the pilots from both sides zooming and shooting at each other. That was how I felt like, driving in Penang. I had to be very alert and on the lookout of each and every moving vehicles on the road, from all angles. There are no rules. They zigzag every little space and corner on the road, overtaking from the right or left in between cars at high speed. My eyes were moving very fast constantly watching them like lighting bolt rushing past my right and left rear mirrors. Some motorbike riders may even come from the opposite direction in a one-way street! The car drivers are as bad. They can overtake on the right and the left lane at high speed. It is madness at the extreme driving in Penang. My adrenalin rushed at million miles an hour. It was, I had to admit, crazy and exciting at the same time. My partner thought it was funny. I kept my cool and try to manoeuvre away from them, avoiding any potential disaster.
After visiting a few shops in the city of George Town, we were hungry and ready for lunch. I suggested we try a new seafood place at the southern end of Penang island. The name of the restaurant is called Ocean Batu Maung Seafood Restaurant. It was previously known as Batu Maung Seafood. Time moves on and the place had changed, with the same owners. I thought the place might be family owned, but I was told that it was owned by a group of friends.
I remembered the old place vividly, that I had to walk down towards the restaurant housed in a wooden building perched on the edge of the sea. There were fishing trawlers nearby and platforms jutting out to the sea, with some of their catches in cages in the water rather than in a tank. It had views spanning over 180 degrees of the open sea and smell of the ocean. It was a paradise of the past, making way for a multi million dollar high class residential and commercial development – gated terrace houses, duplex houses, bungalows, condominiums and shopping mall, known as “Southbay”.
The new place is a long building with no view or ambiance. It is neither stylish nor traditional with seaview. Put aside these setback and you will have the best time of your life with the seafood.
I have been to another place in Penang, across the bridge in Butterworth that will turnoff most snobbish foodies, but that was one of the best food I ever had in Penang. Since then, I have kept an open mind that great food is not necessary link to the façade of a nice looking building with nice interior and/or surrounding areas, and vice versa. As the saying goes, “never judge a book by its cover”. The great thing about searching for great food in any places is to know where to go. But some time this is never the case.
I ordered five dishes for two of us – soft shell crabs, mantis prawns, oysters, bamboo shell clams and vegetable stir fry with macadamia nuts. The total bill including 2 big bottles of Tiger Beer came to MYR$169 (AUD$50+). That was a very good deal.
I will usually order the soft shell crab if it is featured in an ala carte menu. So, when I saw this dish in the menu cooked in ginger and spring onion sauce, I had to try it. It was very good. The texture of the shell was soft, crunchy and light. The meat was sweet and delicate with the occasional burst of an after taste sensation of a zesty ginger flavour. It was a 9 out of 10 dish. MYR$26 (AUD$7+).
This was the best dish ever. Better than any other mantis prawns that I have tried in Penang. There were two large mantis prawns, each sectioned into four parts – the head, the two middle sections and the tail. They were cooked in salted eggs sauce with curry leaves. The dish was rich and salty with an aromatic pungent flavour. This had to be eaten with all fingers. They were finger licking good. The prawns were very fresh, still alive in the water tank. The meat was tender, sweet and juicy. It was easily removed from the shell and had a nice white pinkish flesh. It was a perfect 10 dish. MYR$68 (AUD$22)
This was a spicy dish. The chili paste was the chef’s specialty used in other spicy seafood dishes. It was cooked with lots of shallots and curry leaves to give the dish a nice aromatic flavour. The clams were slightly chewy, which was I believed meant to be. I love the sauce which will go well in a bowl of steamed rice. I gave this dish an 8 out of 10. MYR$10 (AUD$3+)
I ordered two pieces of oysters baked in wasabi paste. I was a bit sceptical to order an oyster dish after a couple of failed results in other restaurants. I guess it is hard to get good oyster and oyster dish in Asia. It is common in Asia that oysters are usually baked or grilled with strong flavour and sauce, which kill the real purpose of eating a fresh oyster. However, the waitress recommended the oyster, which I was told is a local produce. I never knew Penang’s water is pristine or cold enough to harvest oyster. I will google and research on this when I have more time. But then, I never knew that there is an Abalone farm in Penang, until I read about it not long ago, which was owned and operated by a New Zealand expatriate who is living in Penang now as his second home.
This dish, unfortunately, fell in the same category of an “over engineered” oyster dish. It was an unusual dish with unusual flavour. They looked big in a huge oyster shell. But the oyster was a normal and plumb size. The meat of the oyster had lost all its flavour, which was overpowered by the strong thick and gluey wasabi paste sprinkled on top with dried shrimp floss. It was not a disappointing dish, but an experimental dish, in my opinion, which we were happy to try. A 6 out of 10 dish. MYR$16 (AUD$5+)
This dish was the first to arrive. It had a mild, subtle, clean and nutty flavour. By itself it may seem boring. But it was a good combination with the other stronger flavoured dishes. A balance of Yin and Yang energy in the food selection. The nuts were wok toasted, and had a nice toasty flavour. Absolutely delicious by itself. A 7 out of 10 dish. MYR$20 (AUD$6+)
We were so full by the time we finished all the dishes. Nothing was left. All plates were cleaned out nicely.
This place is not easily accessible by tourists, unless you have a hired car.
Earlier in my post, I have mentioned that great food is not necessary associated with a nice building and vice versa. This was exactly what we found at dinner on my first day in Penang.
In the evening, we decided to go to Batu Ferringhi, which is a popular place with most tourists and expatriates. Batu Ferringhi is famous for its 5-stars luxury beach and resort hotels (Rasa Sayang, Golden Sand, Hard Rock Hotel, Lone Pine, Park Royal, and many others), beach activities, restaurants and daily night market along the main road (the only road that leads to the city). Each time we come back to Penang, we will visit the night market.
We waited for the peak rush hours to die down before we hit the road. It was 7:30pm. I was hoping the traffic was quieter, but I was wrong. Penang never sleeps! It was busy. Busy as ever, and drivers as furious as ever. It took slightly over an hour before we reached Batu Ferringhi.
We decided to try a middle eastern restaurant called Tarbush. I had suggested this place to my partner in our previous trips, but we have never tried it. We went there with an expectation that it would be a good restaurant with good middle eastern style food after reading other local food blogger’s sites.
The restaurant is tucked behind an U-shaped driveway with a middle section occupied by a few night market stalls. There were ample parking space reserved for the restaurant. I parked our car in one of the parking bay. The restaurant was not busy – 5 to 6 tables at most. It was a big restaurant with different sections but only the main section was opened on the night we were there.
My immediate first impression as we entered the restaurant was asking myself if we had make a wrong choice. But it was too late. We were ushered very quickly to a table. We kept an open mind and decided to try it. After all, one of the most famous local food blogger, CK Lam, gave a rave review of the restaurant. But, rarely has she ever written anything bad on a place or food that she had eaten or tried.
We looked through the menu. My partner ordered the food for us – Kibbeh, Mutabal, Labneh, Sambosa and Arayes Lamb. The total bill came to MYR$102.10 (approx AUD$34). My partner asked for a wine list and the waiter looked at him with a big surprise on his face. We were told that alcohol was not permitted in the restaurant! We were thinking should we leave or stay, and decided to stay. That was a wrong choice. I wished we got up and left. Things got from bad to worse.
We looked around the place while waiting for our food. The restaurant was quite superficial. It looked nice on the outside with authentic middle eastern décor, but underneath that revealed some issues – water leaked from the ceiling (probably from a poorly maintained ducting air condition concealed in the false ceiling), and water leaked from one of the ceiling air condition unit which almost rained on a couple seating underneath the unit. The waiter had to quickly switch off the AC unit and mopped the floor. I was a bit nervous on the hygiene of the place, especially the kitchen. The FOH service was below par for this type of restaurant.
The food – there was nothing to rave about. They were un-interesting, overly dry and bland. The salad and vegetables were dull and not fresh. The dips – Labneh and Mutabal were too thick and didn’t taste fresh. Kibbeh, deep fried lamb mince ball was probably the only decent dish but was a touch too dry. The Arayes Lamb was not anything like the one featured in the picture of the menu. It was paper thin with very thin spread of lamb mince on the bread. Tarbush was a wrong choice for dinner. We had tasted better middle eastern food in Sydney and Melbourne.
I can summed up my first day food trail in Penang as an exciting seafood experience at Ocean Batu Maung Seafood Restaurant, and a flip side of a disappointing middle eastern fair at Tarbush Restaurant.