Herald rating: ***1/2
Address: 66 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Phone: 09 376 2759
On my first big OE 20 years ago (eek!) I travelled through Southeast Asia with my boyfriend. We started in Indonesia and worked our way up through Malaysia and though my memory for some things has faded (did we really have matching backpacks?), I still have vivid memories of the incredible Malaysian food we feasted on. The overlay of Malay, Indian and Chinese influences makes for a wicked combination.
We ate spicy dahl with incredible roti, sticks of satay with spicy peanut sauce, sambals that were hot, salty and sour and much much more. About six years ago I discovered Mutiara in Ponsonby and this small restaurant has been my "little Malaysia" ever since. But it had been a while between visits so when a friend mentioned his girlfriend had recently returned from a stint of working in Malaysia and was missing the fabulous food I suggested we hit my old favourite to check it out.
We were three hungry diners so I took it upon my bossy self to organise something to nibble on while we perused the menu. Prawn crackers - those wonderful pastel coloured tapioca chips that start out small and expand magnificently upon deep frying - arrived, warm, in a basket. We dived in. Then came the lucky money bags filled with creamy chicken and vegetable mix that tasted like... not much, followed by prawn fitters and vegetarian spring rolls.
To be honest all are lazy starters, served with the standard sauces of sweet chilli and hoisin, but I can never resist them. When will I learn to focus on the mains at this establishment, as this is where the flavours of true Malaysian cuisine are to be found.
There's a wide, but not daunting, selection of mains from curries to claypots, sambals to sizzling platters, noodles and soups and most are offered with beef, chicken, seafood or vegetarian options.
My friend had no hesitation in ordering the beef rendang and the girlfriend dived straight in with her order of Ikan Bakar - marinated fresh fish fillet grilled in banana leaf and topped with wild fire sauce. I decided to break out of my routine, which usually has me ordering one of the Nonya claypots because I love the cute little claypot it's served in and how it continues to cook over its own flame at the table. Instead it was prawn and chicken laksa for me.
Our feast arrived all at once - perfect for "fressing", which is a term I have recently encountered that means "eat a lot and without restraint" or, alternatively "eat like an animal i.e. quickly and noisily". I prefer the first version.
I dished up the laksa into small bowls and we all slurped our way through this spicy soup teeming with prawns and with just the right amount of zing in the coconut milk base.
Next we turned our attention to the Ikan Bakar which was a generous serving of firm gurnard fillets, marinated and grilled (with lovely charred bits on the edges that imbued a wonderful flavour) and covered with a sauce that was tangy with tamarind and citrus.
On to the beef rendang. Traditionally rendang is a festive dish served on special occasions and rightly so, as a decent version must be cooked slowly for hours. This one was the real deal - wonderfully piquant with flavours of turmeric and tamarind and I suspect they may have gone the extra mile, as one should, and toasted the coconut to give this dish its authentic richness. We all agreed the dry texture and considerable chilli heat of the rendang was a winner. The tender strips of beef just melted and so did we.
Regular readers will know the drill by now - I just had to go and spoil it all and have dessert! This time I have the perfect justification though (don't I always?). Mutiara has possibly the finest gula melaka in Auckland that I know of. This sago dessert is magical - small translucent sago balls suspended in chilled coconut cream and drizzled with caramelised palm sugar syrup. $4.50-worth of happiness in a sundae glass.
It may not have the best ambience in Ponsonby, but with its cheap prices and cheerful service Mutiara is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself hankering after some genuine Malaysian food.
From the menu: Spring rolls $6.50, Prawn fritters $8, Money bags $6.50, Ikan Bakar $19.50, Beef Rendang Kampung $18, Chicken and prawn laksa $15.50, roti canai $2.50, Gula Melaka $4.50
Drinks: BYO wine, good selection of beers you'll have encountered in Malaysia.