While food should always take precedent with regard to evaluating restaurants, other considerations can be difficult to divorce from its merits (or lack thereof) on the plate. An uninspired presentation or lackluster performance by a server can dampen an otherwise enjoyable meal, as can any number of factors not owed to the food. Multiple amenities contributed to my recent dining experience at Penang Malaysian Cuisine in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. And in this instance, as with past visits there, the effect was pleasant enough to ensure my continued patronage.
Penang’s menu has consistently pleased in terms of flavor and texture, and has generally delighted the eye as well. The Homemade Roti Canai appetizer, as one example, is a crisp Indian pancake that arrives tableside with a curried dipping sauce full of potatoes and tender chicken pieces. Meant to be torn and eaten with one’s hands, the roti is always warm and flaky, the curry sauce smooth, mildly spicy, and so flavorful that I would not be above sipping it like an aperitif if offered a cupful. Other hits include the Shrimp Puff appetizer, a bacon-hugged, deep-fried kiss of minced shrimp, a savory Wonton Soup with Shrimp and Pork (the best I’ve tasted,) and the Hokkien Char Mee (an aromatic dish of thick, chewy noodles in rich soy sauce with fresh shrimp and squid, thin slices of pork, and vegetables.)
The Nasi Lemak (a dish of fragrant coconut rice served with hard-boiled eggs and chili anchovy curry chicken) and the Penang House Special Jumbo Prawns (cooked with ground, dried shrimp in a sauce that’s finger-sucking good) are praiseworthy as well, despite the prawn dish not plating as attractively as some of the aforementioned offerings. Available with the prawn shells left on or removed according to the diner’s preference, its sauce is thicker than is typical of dishes of this kind, and congeals a bit as it cools, at times lending it a gelatinous appearance. This however, does nothing to hinder its tangy, barbecue-inspired flavor or the juicy freshness of the prawns.
Further enhancing this eating experience was a friendly, knowing waitstaff and a relaxed and lively atmosphere. Attentive and quick but never intrusive, our servers seemed happy to guide our menu selections and make suggestions without seeming pushy, even when steering a diner away from a particular menu item that has yet to be embraced by most patrons. High ceilings, an open and always bustling kitchen, and somewhat spare wall décor consisting of brickwork and brushed metal make Penang a noisy evening venue more often than not, though not in unpleasant fashion. This is no place to huddle in hushed conversation over a meal, nor does it pretend or aspire to be. Engaging your dinner companions at a near-shout to be heard above surrounding conversations and kitchen clatter, (not to mention a birthday chorus performed for a neighboring table by the employees that rocked the house on the night I visited) is not only normal here, but is part of Penang’s casual, upbeat charm. With varied table sizes that can as easily accommodate couples as large groups including families with children, enough options on its multi-page menu to present even picky eaters with several attractive options, and a more than manageable price tag, Penang is an exciting Philly find that I look forward to visiting again soon.