SeeFoon gets her spice fix in Old Town
The interesting phenomenon in Ipoh old town nowadays is observing the plethora of new restaurants that open and close like Venus flytraps, that rare carnivorous plant species that traps insects who have the misfortune to wander close, lured by the bright colours and the fragrant scent it secretes. Hence the name Venus, the Roman Goddess of love.
Restaurants appear to do the same, open and close rather quickly and often, sad to say, we don’t even miss them. However, for a few new ones that have recently opened, I would like for them to stay around and become part of the Ipoh food scene.
One of these is Zaitun, a newly-opened family restaurant on Market Street, which is owned and operated by charming Naveen, an Indian national married to a local. This is the second restaurant to be opened by this enterprising young man whose first one, Hadramot Tent Restaurant, an Arabic restaurant, has been up and running for a while on Jalan Sri Ampang.
Far from a Venus flytrap, the signage for the restaurant is so unassuming that it’s easy to miss it. In fact, I have been so often to the PWW shop and not noticed it directly across the street. Plus I have an inherent prejudice against any restaurant that over-reaches and wanting to be all things to all people, for, as per Zaitun’s signboard, a “Multi Cuisine Family Restaurant”. But I was about to be proven wrong.
Naveen has seven chefs manning different stations in the kitchen, all highly skilled in their respective specialities. So he’ll have someone just preparing all the grilled items, another all the breads, another on the Arabic sauces and mezes, one handling the continental dishes another blending the masalas and another one cooking the various regional Indian specialities, and so it goes. So there is not one or two ‘jack of all trades’ dishing out mediocre food.
That is what makes Zaitun special.
At first, I thought we were walking into a Malay restaurant as the name is fairly common here but Naveen explained that ‘zaitun’ means ‘olive’ in Arabic. So now that was all explained, we began to taste the dishes which on this particular occasion was a mix of Indian and Arabic dishes.
The first dish was the Chicken Mandi a quarter of a chicken served with long-grain flavoured basmati rice, soup and Arabic sambal. The chicken looked remarkably bland on the plate but on tasting, was tender, well-marinated through and umami. The soup reminded me of a mild sup kambing and the Arabic sambal, pungent, fiery and had its own unique flavours, quite unlike the local Indian sambals I’ve tasted; RM13 – quarter, RM22 – half.
Next to come was a Chicken Cheese Tandoori, a large portion but with a difference. All the tandoori flavours were there but the addition of mozzarella cheese which was stuffed into the meat lent a new dimension to the tandoori package. The coriander-mint sauce was thankfully(!) not sweetened, mildly tart and tangy and the serving of mayonnaise (I reckon) was for those who need the fatty mouthfeel for the non-oily chicken; RM22.
The Butter Chicken was hands down one of the best I have tasted. Creamy, voluptuous, spicy and populated with chunks of chicken; RM17. We ate it with a mixture of Naans. Parathas, a Rumali Roti varying in price from RM3-5 except for the stuffed one.
Other dishes with gravy included a Chettinad Chicken made with 35 types of spices fresh from India, RM15, and a Chettinad Lamb at RM22.
Then, we had the mixed kebab platter, lovely skewers of grilled minced lamb and chicken served with french fries and chilli sauce and mayo. The kebabs were certainly flavoured exotically (more Arabic) and were very tasty but I thought the attempt at fusion with the fries and mayo rather tainted the dish. I would have much rather preferred the coriander-mint chutney and a squeeze of lime. But then that is my palate and next time I would request for that. I am sure that many a young person would much prefer the fries and the mayo! Mixed RM23. Lamb only RM24.
We were five of us and by this time groaning with surfeit and then came the non-vegetarian Thali! Which is a full meal in itself – 11 small dishes of delectables, like Chicken Khorma (very umami), two types of dhal, mutton curry, fried bitter gourd, mixed vegetable and a very delicious fish curry which I have promised myself to order next time, served with a heaping portion of Ponni rice which you eat with ghee and powdered dahl – an unusual serving style which is new to me; RM24. There is also a vegetarian option for RM12 which is currently on promotion for RM10.
Overall I found the prices at Zaitun very reasonable. Their menu is extensive and I hadn’t even ventured near their continental dishes! If they keep up with the quality, Ipoh can look forward to having them on the permanent food scene.
Zaitun Multi Cuisine Family Restaurant
(pork-free and waiting for Halal certification)
20, Jalan Market, 30000 Ipoh.
Contact: 017 737 2711