March Madness

Something wholly new on the menu of Twin Cities tastes: Peninsula's pataya fish

Something wholly new on the menu of Twin Cities tastes: Peninsula's pataya fish

2608 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis

For me, I know that the madness has set in whenever I start obsessing on what to call those stalactites of ice and mud that build up behind the wheels of the car. It happens every year, like—well, not like clockwork, but like calendarwork. Sometime in late March, sometime in early April, when the great regional crack-up sets in, I drive hither and yon, looking at them dangling behind every truck or car's wheels, and I think: Why is it that something we have for half the year has no name? You could call them crudcicles, of course. Or albatrice—as in albatross plus ice. Or, in keeping with the way they both point out us special chosen Minnesotans and display our suffering, we could call them frigmatas—frigid stigmatas, don't you know.

Sometimes they drop off a 16-wheeler on the highway, and one day they will kill someone. Probably someone who spent half an hour kicking at one in one of the only socially approved outlets we have for being winter fed-up-to-here. Of course, there are other ways to express this sentiment, besides mangling the language: You could buy ridiculous bejeweled summer sandals and drive yourself crazy not wearing them through April showers and May mud. (Oh, and what did you think the "resort" collections in the stores were for? They're for ladies with cabin fever, not cruise ship passengers.) You could pick fights with your loved ones over trivial, meaningless little nothings, or you could break up altogether. This is a popular pre-spring activity, to judge by the number of men I've noticed walking the streets of Uptown with grocery bags full of clothing and coffee makers.

Or, you could find a new restaurant. Is there anything to relieve the unrelenting sameness and grind like a food you've never tasted? Or, in the case of Peninsula, the new Malaysian restaurant that opened on Eat Street, a hundred you haven't?

Maybe 200. Or 300. Peninsula has one of those menus that goes on for pages and pages, and conceals within it many wonderful treats, and enough disappointments that two parties could sit at adjacent tables and walk away with completely different impressions of the place. So let's let yours be the happy table of the two.

The first thing you need to know is that Malaysian food is a cuisine of one of the world's great crossroads. Peninsular Malaysia is anchored on the land mass that holds Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and such, and has in its colonial history been controlled by both the Dutch and the British, and even had some Japanese influence. Over the years its native population was significantly increased with immigrants from China and India, which is to say that authentic Indian food, authentic Chinese food, and authentic Thai food are all in fact authentic Malay foods, in addition to Malay foods. It's also a culture with a love for outdoor food plazas; much of the greatest food in Malaysia is said to come from hawker stands.

How does this information help you? Well, I've come to think of Peninsula, the new restaurant on Nicollet, as offering food that would be available to us if we had access to a few dozen of the best hawker stands representing all the contributing cultures. There are just that many dishes, and there are just that many diverse cooking preparations.

Here's my short list of great Peninsula picks. The appetizers aren't as uniformly wonderful as the entrees, so think about just ordering entrees. If you do get appetizers, the roti—variations on traditional Indian pancake breads—are excellent. The roti canai ($3.25) is a fresh, pan-fried bread that comes with an incredibly tasty little bowl of curry sauce with a bit of potato and chicken in it. The roti telur ($3.95) is similar, but here the pancake is filled with egg, onion, and jalapeños cut into matchsticks. The achat salad ($3.95) is one of my favorites; here lightly pickled vegetables are tossed with a cloaking dressing of ground peanuts, giving them a sweet and rich accent.

Three sorts of satay are on hand: chicken, beef, and tofu. And the tofu here is far more than an afterthought for vegetarians; it's house-made, silky, and incredibly fine. This tofu is particularly well showcased in one of my must-orders from Peninsula, namely the spicy salted golden tofu ($8.95), in which squares of this singularly silky bean curd are cut into cubes, dusted with salt and spice, and fried until their exteriors have the light crunch of, say, a toasted marshmallow. They're so salty, creamy, and utterly snackable you practically want a cone of them to walk around the state fair with.

Another must-order are the volcano pork ribs ($10.95), little short ribs rubbed with red spice and roasted until they're as salty, spicy, rich, and delicious as any napkin-happy finger food you can name—Cheetos, buffalo wings, and, uh, yeah, rib tips. They all but cry out for a television, a beer, and a sporting event. Peninsula has the beer, in fact. Happily, they have a short wine list and decent number of beers, including one I've never noticed locally: San Miguel, the leading beer of the Philippines and Hong Kong.

Whole fish are another joy at Peninsula. I particularly like the "fried fish in spicy Thai sauce," which you can get as a number of fish (including red snapper and walleye) in a number of sizes. I had the small red snapper, and found the preparation of a crisp fish sauced to serve with a tomato-based, spicy, almost chutney-like red concoction to be utterly charming. The tender fish, the crisp crust, and the vibrant sauce combined to create a dish that was altogether fresh and fun.

My final must-order includes any of the hot pots. The spicy and smoky red curry beef one ($11.95), the silky and rare mushroom-rich seafood bean curd one ($12.95), and the eggplant and brisk green curry "curry vegetable hot pot" ($10.95) are all excellent.

All in all, I recommend that you start at Peninsula with a few of my top picks, and gradually expand your repertoire as you return. And I'm pretty sure you will return. Unless you just order willy-nilly, in which case you might end up with some things you're not crazy about. For instance, it's fairly well known that belacan is one of the premier tastes of Malaysia. What's less known is that the fermented shrimp paste makes good old stinky fish sauce seem as mild as fish sticks. If you want the real taste of authenticity, be sure to get the kan kung belacan ($10.95)—water spinach sautéed with the spicy shrimp sauce—but don't send it back if you don't like it, because that's exactly the way it's supposed to be. Seafood chow fun ($7.95) is done with a loose, oily sauce that enhances the slippery, slidey, glistening qualities of the rice noodle—a valued characteristic in Chinese cooking, but one that can seem slimy to Westerners.

I didn't try anywhere near all the dishes on Peninsula's voluminous menu, but I did try enough to firmly decide that Peninsula is a great addition to Eat Street. I like the spacious room with its hardwood floors; big windows; dark, sturdy wooden tables and chairs; and servers wearing colorful scarves around the hips of their black pants—it's a look that says destination, but not so much that you can't get out the door for under $20 a person, having eaten generously and well. Basically, Peninsula provides another budget-minded but high-style destination for those well familiar with the other Asian gems of the strip, Chinese Rainbow and Vietnamese Quang and Jasmine Deli.

Not that there's anything wrong with them, but, you know how it is. Quang and Jasmine close too early, and Peninsula is open till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10:30 the rest of the week. And Rainbow? I don't even need to tell you what's wrong with Rainbow: It's the time of year when any good Minnesotan picks petty fights with her loved ones, remember? And spring so far in the distance. It's enough to make a girl start naming those ice stalactites behind the tires.