Navas, Ponsonby

By Peter Calder

Sago, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia tells me, is "a powdery starch made from the processed pith found inside the trunks of the sago palm Metroxylon sagu'.

When I was in the fourth form, we had an entirely different theory, the kind that only fourth-form boys can have, as to its provenance. In the school dining hall, in thick sloppy masses in aluminium trays, it looked like something that had escaped from the little room at the back of the science lab that only the geeky lab monitors were allowed into. It seemed as though a million little eyes stared malevolently up at us as we tried to make it palatable by adding lashings of bad strawberry jam.

You may take the view that my decision to try the sago pudding at Navas represents the triumph of hope over experience. You may even think it shows what courage I display in the discharge of my journalistic duties. But the fact is that the Blonde - who did not go to boarding school - wanted to try it.

And it wasn't half bad. Hardened into a slightly rubbery cake and swamped with coconut milk and palm sugar (you could hardly see those freaky eyes) it was a pleasant end to a very pleasant meal.

Navas was deserted the night the Blonde and I turned up with some of those hip young people to whom this boho part of town belongs. That may have had something to do with the geographical disadvantage - it is stuck in that dead zone at the K Rd end of Ponsonby Rd - but may equally have been to do with the bloody awful weather in the early part of this month.

Either way, we had the place to ourselves and, if the gas heater struggled to make the echoing interior feel warm and comforting, the food soon set matters right.

Malaysia is the crossroads of Asian food, where Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisine live in happy harmony. The curries at Navas are proof of that, not as creamy and ghee-rich as the Mughal cooking of north India, nor as leafy and fragrant as the food on the Indo-Chinese peninsula further east.

I passed over the lamb soup - which, I have since learned, is a legendary dish - and we started on a pair of very nice entrée platters that included fish balls, spring rolls and shrimp fritters in a dipping sauce.

I may have been unnecessarily worldly in advising a younger member of the party that the mild-medium-hot continuum was doubtless scaled for westerners and that "mild' meant flavourless. Or perhaps the waitress heard me and thought "I'll show the poncy bastard'. Either way, be assured that Kris Krishnan, a Swiss-trained hotel chef, gives the curry the curry.

The chicken curry (medium) was sweat-inducing but the Tioman seafood medley (named for an island in the South China Sea) was a sweet-chilli relief. A lamb curry and a lamb kurma were mild alternatives - the butter chicken was for sissies but butter chicken always is - but all were excellent.

There are places in Ponsonby Rd that serve second-rate food at first-rate prices. Navas gets it the other way round. It deserves to be packed.

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Navas
14 Ponsonby Rd, ph 378 4478

Lunch five days 11am-2pm;
Dinner six days 6pm-10pm (closed Sundays)

THE BILL
$141 for five

Entrés (2) $20
Mains (5) $80
Rotis (3) $7.50
Rice (3) $5
Desserts (2) $16
Soft drinks (3) $8.50
Hot chocolate $4

Wine list: Very basic. $4 corkage.
Vegetarians: Four options.
Watch out for: The sago.
Sound check: Probably noisy when full.
Bottom line: Good, honest no-frills Malaysian.
Web: www.eatout.co.nz/navas-cafe.html

*An editing error last week introduced some rogue text which claimed Himalaya's wine list was mainly French and the place was also a bar. Neither of which is true.

- Detours, HoS

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