Newcomer from Malaysia: Papparich, Chatswood. Photo: Steven Siewert
You go to sleep one night, wake up in the morning, and Chatswood has reinvented itself. The skin of the $50 million ChatPAC (Chatswood Performing Arts Centre) building is jumping with videos and neon, and the surrounding eateries are now chandelier-strung pleasure palaces. Good Thai's G'Thai space glitters like a ballroom, Shanghai Stories 1938 offers two levels of soup dumplings, mud crab and lobster, and the newly opened Star Capital seafood restaurant sparkles with wall-to-wall chandies.
Having never really rivalled dear old Chinatown for sheer diversity of Asian eating and shopping experiences, Chatswood is now flouncing forward into the future; the Chinatown for the next generation. New kids on the block include the street-smart, pan-Asian Rice Den and sweet little designer diner Khao Pla Thai, which bills itself as a ''Thai indie'' kitchen.
Then there's PappaRich, a newcomer from Malaysia via Melbourne that seems to have everyone in thrall, its long queue trailing out the door and down the street. I used to be dead against queues; now I just join them to see what all the fuss is about. The fuss here seems to be about plenty of cheap, cheerful Malaysian fare in a vast room lined with open kitchens run with an almost military precision.
Go-to dish: Roti canai with chicken curry, $11.90. Photo: Steven Siewert
Note, this is Halal Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur, rather than from multi-denominational Singapore, so it's no pork, no alcohol. You'll be too busy to worry about the absence of either, however, as you drool over the huge picture menu, with its thali-like stainless-steel trays of curries, satays and laksa noodles.
Ordering is an adventure in itself. Fill in the form on your table, press the buzzer attached to the cutlery unit and within seconds a nice-as-pie server will whisk it away. It's a very efficient, if impersonal, system, although the buzzer sounds irritatingly like the ''da-dum'' that alerts you to go to cashier No.3 at the supermarket - so dinner is conducted to the accompaniment of ''da-dum'', ''da-dum'' from all over the room. The novelty soon wears off.
The dining room is shopping mall bland, with tiled floors, dark wood-panelled walls, bare tables, a ''brick'' fireplace and revolving ceiling fans. Colour and warmth come from the buzzy tables of families and friends, many hovering over platters of thick, white ''Hainan bread'' and kaya (coconut jam). It's a sort of future-world kopitiam (coffee shop), so there are a whopping six pages of drinks, from
kopi-O (sweetened black coffee) to teh tarik (''stretched'' milk tea), including something called a Milo Dinosaur. An iced barley drink with grass jelly ($4.20) comes with a bubble-tea straw fat enough to allow the whooshing-up of pellets of dark herb jelly and grains of barley. Delicious.
The Malaysian-Indian dishes seem to be the best and brightest here; the tandooris, curries, dhal, flatbreads and rice. And here's a first - my roti canai with chicken curry ($11.90) looks just like its menu picture. It's good roti, too: flaky, light and ready to tear and mop up the pleasant chicken curry, the splodge of feisty chilli sambal and the gentle sludge of daal. Satay beef ($12.90) is firm and chewy, coming with a jumble of rough-cut raw cucumber, raw red onion and a great sweet-salty-spicy peanut sauce, but without the trad compressed rice parcels (ketupat). Char kuay teow ($12.50) lacked smoke, scorch and character; the prawns bland, and the noodles were the thinner rice sticks, rather than fresh broad rice noodles. Squidgy siu mai vegetarian dumplings ($4.90) weren't worth the stomach space, but a generous side of chicken rice ($3) is a knockout: beautifully cooked, fragrant and almost squeaky.
Pud is as simple as ABC, or air batu campur ($6.90), otherwise known as ice kacang, that crazy mix of shaved ice, sweet syrup, evaporated milk, sultanas, peanuts, red beans and creamed corn that's best shared among as many spoons as possible.
There are probably better examples of each dish available elsewhere, but PappaRich does a bit of everything well enough to get away with it. The systems work, the pacing is good, the prices are fair, and it all comes together in a seething mass of humanity and coconut jam. There are 70 PappaRiches in Malaysia and already five in Melbourne. I think we can expect many more. Da dum.
Roti canai with chicken curry, $11.90.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
- Cuisine - Malaysian
- Prices - About $50 for two
- Features - Cheap and cheerful, Family friendly
- Opening Hours - Mon-Wed, 11am-9pm; Thu-Fri, 11am-11pm; Sat, 10am-11pm; Sun, 10am-9pm.
- Author - Terry Durack