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Malaysian Persuasion

The Malay Café helps make the Northland an ethnic-dining destination.

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I can't remember which famous New York restaurant critic — Mimi Sheraton or Gael Green? — maintained her anonymity by sometimes wearing costumes to restaurants. I've spent much time lately putting together my own all-concealing disguises. The other night, I went to a restaurant dressed as a somewhat chubbier Kevin Federline (complete with a sheath of legal papers spilling out of the pockets of my baggy pants), and the following evening I masqueraded as a member of Westboro Baptist Church. (I keep a jogging suit and a picket sign handy to pull off that one.)

But there are times, damn it, when I have to face the public as my scruffy old self. Two weeks ago, I stepped out of my car in front of a Mexican restaurant in Johnson County and was immediately recognized by the manager (an old pal from the 1990s) and one of the servers, whom I've known since she was a bratty preteen. My Rudy Giuliani ensemble should be back from the dry cleaner before I have to go there again.

I never thought about wearing a disguise on the afternoon I walked into the Malay Café with three friends. I hadn't been to this Northland restaurant in more than half a decade. Since I last reviewed it ("Up, Up and Malay," January 17, 2002), the original owner had sold the place and, I'd been told, moved back to Malaysia.

Loretta, Justin, Tyrone and I had barely taken our seats in the narrow dining room when a petite waitress started chatting with me as if we were old friends. I would have sworn that I'd never seen this woman in my life, but I'm wary of doing that anymore (since a complete stranger walked up to me in Indianapolis last year and reminded me that in the 1970s, we had lived together).

"Are you the new owner of this restaurant?" I asked.

No, she told me, she was the former owner of the Malay Café — the one who was supposed to be back in Malaysia. Since 2002, when I'd last spoken to Allison Lim (who ran the restaurant with her husband and her brother-in-law), she'd sold the cozy little bistro to one of her chefs, Shanghai-born Bill Fang, and his wife, June. "But he learned all about Malaysian cooking from working with us," Lim said, "and my brother-in-law still cooks here, too."

Lim had gone back to her home country to spend time with her dying father. When she returned to the states, she wasn't interested in running a restaurant. But she does enjoy helping the Fangs by waiting tables several afternoons a week.

My cover was blown, but fortunately, I had eaten a quiet, anonymous dinner in the restaurant a week earlier. And I can say that the food is just as fine as it was when I first stumbled into the hard-to-find location — sandwiched, nearly invisibly, between a Pier 1 and a HoneyBaked Ham store in a strip mall — five years ago.

But the Fangs need to address some details.

As someone who literally grew up working in the restaurant trade, I've always maintained that a less-than-spotless bathroom usually doesn't bode well for the tidiness of the kitchen. (There are exceptions to this rule, but not many.) That's why I cringed when Wendy, my dining companion on the first visit, returned to our table from the salle de bains and whispered, "This is such a cute little place, but the bathroom is something from a truck stop."

"Don't think about it," I said, trying to soothe her as I ladled herb soup from a big bowl into her white soup bowl. "Think about balance."

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