Pittsfield: Flavours of Malaysia
By: Charles Giuliano - Dec 18, 2009
Sabrina Tan and Chin Lee opened their restaurant Flavours of Malaysia at 75 North Street, in Pittsfield several months ago. In a relatively short time the word has spread quickly and the eatery has become a popular destination. They serve an eclectic and exotic mix of Malaysian (their heritage) Asian and even American cuisine.
On a cold December, Thursday evening we found the restaurant just about full. We took one of the last remaining tables. On weekends, even in the dead of winter, reservations (413 443 3188) are strongly recommended.
It's not that easy to find as it is tucked into a basement with an entrance on McKay Street. There is a sign posted at 75 North Street, the main drag in Pittsfield, that advises you to enter around the corner. There is a cluster of outstanding restaurants including the upscale Brix, steps from the Brew Pub, while down the street from an Italian Trattoria.
This complex of restaurants are in the same first block as the newly opened Beacon Cinema. They are also within walking distance of the Berkshire Museum and the Colonial Theatre. During the season a short drive on to Lenox with Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Company.
It is a signifier of the revitalization of Pittsfield which also includes Barrington Stage, Storefront Artists, the Lichtenstein Center, and Ferrin Gallery, that a lively mix of restaurants has emerged. Over the coming months we will report on other dining options.
Although Flavours of Malaysia is the new kid on the block, creating a lot of buzz and excitement, that's a bit of a fib. There was an earlier incarnation in a motel along the main highway through Lenox. They were located a relatively short distance from another exotic destination Bombay in the Comfort Inn next to Laurel Lake. We stopped once for the Malaysian buffet but it took some commitment to drive in, park and find the restaurant which just lacked ambiance.
The couple faced the option of closing down their business. But a friendly landlord enticed them into making the move to McKay Street. This is the third restaurant at that location. We missed the barbecue version. That was followed by a Brazilian restaurant which we really enjoyed. When that closed, the landlord, anxious to keep the space occupied, sweetened the deal by offering to make renovations.
We asked Sabrina, who stopped at our table to chat, if they had hired a decorator. The rich red walls and other decorative flourishes have the look of a professional. But she said with understated pride that she had selected the colors, redesigned the space, and done over the kitchen. It certainly does have a different look.
Because of occupancy limits by fire regulations there is some open space. This has been configured as a dance floor and pool table. Like the former Brazilian restaurant they are offering live music on weekends. They also get the football/ sports crowd on weekends so a number of their visitors come for its lounge and hang out. The bar serves a mix of Berkshire Brewery beers on tap, as well as a full bar.
Last night we asked our very helpful waiter for advice on typical and popular dishes. I tried Traditional Curry Chicken and Potato ($16.95) and Astrid ordered the Malaysian Steamed Jumbo Tiger Prawns, with garlic, ginger, shitake and egg drop ($18.95). Both dishes, which were nicely presented, came with a house salad, choice of jasmine or brown rice, and sautéed beans with shredded carrot.
My curry was spicy with generous chunks of chicken and nicely done wedges of potato. Astrid let me have one of her large shrimps. Again, the dish was ample with eight large shrimps (prawns) as well as the other mix of ingredients. She remarked on this combination of flavors.
For an appetizer we kind of went all out with the Steamed Dumplings & Shumai Platter at $19.95. The dish, which arrived in a round bamboo steamer, included four pieces each of pork and shrimp, vegetarian, spinach, and chicken and shrimp shumai. This very large order was more than enough for two and would be better shared by a party of four. A couple might consider it as a main dish and also order soup and or salad. All of the dumplings were fresh and home made. They came with a sweet dipping sauce but Astrid asked the waiter for some light soy sauce.
During our prior visit I tried the Barbecue Pork Spare Ribs with homemade chili, ginger and garlic sauce ($16.95). They were awesome. Some of the most exotic barbecue I have tried, and trust me, I know barbecue. They were a nice variation for you fans out there. The waiter also recommended the Barbecue Orange Ginger Pork Chops ($15.95).
The menu is huge and prices range from noodle dishes like Malaysian Lo Mein at $9.95, Pad Thai for $11.95 to $21.95 for Rack of Lamb or the Malaysian Barbecue Seafood and Chicken Platter. There is also a lunch menu with many items from $8.95 to $9.95.
Right now Tam and Lee are open seven days a week. Sabrina commented that "We are just getting established mostly by word of mouth." But in January they may take a day off. Right now they are excited about how their restaurant is taking off.
I asked Sabrina about the long hours and if she has help in the kitchen. The hours run from lunch to closing down by 11. So they are working twelve hour days seven days a week. Hey, that's the restaurant business.
Is there a lot of prep I wanted to know? "Not really" she said. Preferring to cut vegetables and prepare dishes from scratch so they are fresh. Except for the curry which has to cook and absorb flavors. With a helper in the kitchen it is all her cooking.
We asked if she had learned to cook at home? Not really we learned. She was raised with servants and only started to cook when she came to American, with her child from a prior marriage, some 20 or so years ago. She worked for a family in Marblehead. Missing her traditional "comfort food" she contacted family back home for recipes. She visited Boston's Chinatown shopping for ingredients. Soon she was serving dinner parties for a dozen or so guests.
Chin and Sabrina met through the Malaysian ambassador in New York. Eventually they moved to the Berkshires and built a new house in Lee. For two and a half years they struggled with the former location. Things were bleak until they got this fresh start in a new location. Like everyone else they are struggling to catch up during a tough economy.
Sabrina asked if we planned to order desert. We hadn't thought of that but she insisted that we try her own recipe for wasabi crème brule. Now that was indeed an exotic dish. The hot mustard did not overwhelm the sweetness but provided a unique twist to a familiar dish.
Most importantly Sabrina has a policy of No MSG and also prepares gluten free dishes when requested by diners. All of her sauces are mixed to order. The culprit in Chinese restaurants is the prepared sauces as she explained. Since MSG gives her headaches she is sensitive about how she serves clients in her restaurant. That's really good to know.
As were preparing to leave I chatted with a table of four women finishing their meals. I asked if they had enjoyed the dinner. They informed me that they are fans and come often. For a restaurant, that's the best kind of recommendation.