While I consider myself above-average in food savvy, I have to admit I was a bit stymied when asked to describe a typical Malaysian staple.
Malaysian food crosses all sorts of borders. For centuries, the Malay Peninsula served as a stopping point for ships from the Middle East, India, Europe, China and Indonesia. The resulting melting pot of culture and cuisine has its most powerful influences coming from Thai, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian fare. There are so many culinary traditions intertwined that it's impossible to sum it up neatly.
Happily, the curious now can get a taste of that international medley at Black Pepper, which opened in March in the site last occupied by Menlo Hub. It's sister to Banana Leaf in Milpitas, with a similar menu and overall vibe.
The space is open and modern, with well-spaced tables on two levels. Simple, understated artwork panels make a visual distraction along the side walls. Tables are set with crisp white coverings and minimal settings. A compact bar, separated from the eating area by a frosted glass partition, showcases its bottles along the streetside windows on colorfully backlit shelves. The overall atmosphere is sophisticated but doesn't impart any sense of place or culinary background.
The menu, on the other hand, is exotic and enticing, with variations of South Asian staples like satay, roti, curry and sambal. An appetizer of house-made roti prata ($4) is served with a delectable curry dipping sauce. The thin layers of fried bread were overly greasy, but who cares when the sauce is that delicious? Another winning starter is the ahi tuna salad ($15), with generous slices of barely seared tuna on a bed of dressed greens with roasted pumpkin seeds, fresh raspberries and exactly two seared shrimp.
Main dishes include a nice variety of fish, prawns and seafood, along with lamb, beef and chicken. Green curry beef ($22) showcases slices of beef tenderloin in a rich tangy sauce. The flavors of Utama chicken ($18) are soft, round and almost sweet, with a light chili sauce that adds just a hint of tang. Singapore-style black pepper eggplant and green beans ($15) is just one of several appealing vegetarian variations and is a terrific balance of textures, spices and flavors.
Another visit had us fighting over Ying Yong noodles ($19), a deep bowl of different types of noodles and a mix of seafood, chicken and greens in an addictive, thick white sauce -- something like egg drop soup on steroids -- and a great go-to dish for cold weather.
Service varies. One visit highlighted seamless and personable table service, with our server making suggestions and sharing anecdotes. Another visit had me whimpering uselessly for my cocktail, which arrived after our plates were almost bare.
Speaking of drinks, Black Pepper touts a tempting selection of custom cocktails ($14) with alluring names: Rainfalls of Rambutan, Citrus Desire, Electric Blue Breeze. Though tasty, these drinks seem quite skimpy for the price, and try as I might, I could not detect any zing in my Gingerlicious Sparkle until I asked the bartender to make me another, with lots of extra ginger.
As for the desserts, do try the banana granite ($8), a caramelized banana in palm sugar syrup topped with ice cream and almonds. On another visit, we sampled the pandan panna cotta ($8), a creamy mound jazzed up with mildly sweet pandan sauce made from leaves of screwpine, a tropical plant.
Prices overall tend to fall on the high side at dinner, with halibut selections at $32 and sea bass running over $40. However, servings overall are generous, presentation is artful and flavors are sophisticated and well-rounded. Lunch special prices are reasonable and include a nice cross-section of dishes.
Black Pepper is the sort of restaurant that, after finishing a meal, you begin to plan for your next trip back. There's plenty of variety and the kinds of snappy favors that can make a mouth very happy.
1029 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m.; Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 11:45 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Parking: Street, nearby lots
Alcohol: Full bar, craft cocktails
Happy Hour: No
Noise level: Medium
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent