- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

Washington diners, introduced to Malaysian cuisine earlier by Kopitiam on M Street NW, now have not one but two Penangs. The newest, on the corner of 19th and M Streets in what was once Gusti's, is a beautiful new Malaysian restaurant, aptly named Penang.
There's also a Penang on Bethesda Avene in Bethesda, which is 6 months old. The two restaurants are separately owned and managed by members of the same family which also owns restaurants in Atlanta, New York and Chicago.
The Washington and Bethesda restaurants are city and country cousins. Penang in Bethesda is a large and plain restaurant, and feels like a barbecue establishment: wooden tables, a wooden railing around the seating area, a long bar with television, an exposed kitchen at the back. One wall is of irregular, flat stones and serves as an incongruous waterfall with water gently trickling down.
The Bethesda Penang has a lengthy menu of more than 150 items plus sushi ($1 sushi specials on Mondays to Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m.) and various Japanese dishes. The downtown restaurant has only about half that number, does not offer sushi and is priced slightly higher.
Both evoke the real Penang, "the Pearl of the Orient," a small island off the west coast of Malaysia at the end of a long train ride from Bangkok (or a shorter one from Singapore) to Butterworth, then a romantic ferry ride (or less romantic bridge crossing) across the Straits of Malacca. Penang was the first British trading post in the Far East and today is regarded as having the best food in Malaysia. Something for the Penangs here to live up to, and by and large they do.
Washington's Penang is beautiful. Walls lit from behind or by votive lights, a large bar area with little tables, chairs and sofas, comfortable upholstered dining chairs, tiny oil lamps on the well-spaced tables create an elegant atmosphere. The service and the food match the decor. Everything is done with style and taste.
Malaysian food is an amalgam of Chinese, Indian, Thai and even Middle Eastern cuisine. Traditional Malay dishes incorporate ginger, garlic, pepper, cloves and onions. Tamarind, curry, coconut and lemon grass are also prevalent. Many dishes have a kick, but they're never as hot as Thailand's fiery preparations.
Appetizers are outstanding in both restaurants. Roti canai is a warm sheet of light, chewy flat bread, similar to Indian bread only thinner and more crepelike, served with a mild chicken curry dipping sauce. The sauce contains a few chunks of chicken and potato. It's not to be missed.
Popia (or poh piah) is another wonderful appetizer. Two large steamed spring rolls filled with jicama and bean sprouts come to the table cut in half, warm and accompanied by hoisin plum sauce. The crunch of the filling is a fine contrast to the smooth, soft popia skin. The steamed rolls are a delicious alternative to the crispy fried spring rolls which, while good at Penang, do not live up to the steamed version.
Chicken and beef satay (four sticks at the Washington Penang, six in Bethesda) is another excellent choice to start a meal. The meat is of good quality, the grilling just long enough to keep the meat juicy and tender and the thick peanut dipping sauce is mild and excellent. The satay is served with a few pieces of red onion and unpeeled cucumber.
A baby oyster omelet, served at the Bethesda location, is another memorable dish. Nothing could be simpler: a light omelet filled with barely cooked little, very fresh, oysters, decorated with a few coriander leaves. Nothing could be more delicious, a perfect light lunch.
Unfortunately, main dishes do not quite live up to the promise of the appetizers at either location. A house special in Bethesda of giant prawns in a fine sweet and sour sauce with shredded vegetables is beautiful to behold, fragrant and full of flavor. The truly huge shrimp, served with tail shell on, however, are tough and chewy.
Smaller shrimp suffer similarly, although less so. At Washington's Penang, medium-sized shrimp are sauteed with slices of fresh mango and red and green peppers in a slightly spicy sauce and served in mango shells (buah mango). The preparation once again is pretty and the combination is a pleasant one, but the shrimp are not tender.
Beef rendang is another disappointment at both restaurants. This house special dish is of chunks of beef braised in coconut milk, chilies, cinammon and cloves. The flavor of the beef and its sauce are subtle and mild, but the meat in both places, particularly at the Washington Penang, was tough. Our waiter told us it was the restaurant's most popular dish, so perhaps the kitchen didn't simmer the beef long enough. Whatever the cause, it was a disappointment.
Noodle dishes, on the other hand, are prepared with care. Both the noodle soups, a meal in themselves, and the sauteed noodles can be delicious. Penang char mee hoon combines rice vermicelli with chicken, egg, bean sprouts, red and green peppers and lemon grass in a fragrant mild dish. Penang char kway teow is a similar combination of flat wider noodles, a few shrimp, squid, bean sprouts, eggs, and chili paste. It's a subtle combination and a nice addition to a meal of several dishes.
Curries, which resemble Thai rather than Indian curries, are excellent. Green curry chicken is a dish of tender pieces of breast meat with string beans, eggplant, lemon grass and kaffir leaves in a not-too-spicy coconut curry broth. It's one of the best dishes we tasted.
The restaurants offer a broad range of dishes, both familiar and unusual. Both have a full bar. In either location, Penang serves fine food. At 19th and M, the elegance and comfort of the decor are strong attractions for savoring beautifully presented and served dishes. In Bethesda, the open simplicity of the restaurant suggests authenticity. Penang both of them live up to the island's reputation.
Order Penang's splendid dessert called pisang pancake. A large crepe is filled with mashed bananas and topped with a mild coconut cream. It's scrumptious.

RESTAURANT: Penang, 1837 M St. NW; 202/822-8770; and 4933 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 301/657-2878
HOURS: Washington: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday, and until 10 p.m. Sunday; Bethesda: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

PRICES: Appetizers and soups $3.25 to $8; main courses $8 to $20
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: Street parking and nearby lots
ACCESS: Bethesda wheelchair accessible; Washington not

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