The diners at the tables to my left and right at Serai had personal stories about what Malaysian cuisine meant to them, and as someone who hasn’t had the chance to visit the Southeast Asian country or try the food, I took it upon myself to eavesdrop. At least some of the people eating at the restaurant had a strong connection to Malaysian food, and most of them were looking to relive memories. Murmurs of “my mom used to make pulut hitam”—a black rice pudding with coconut milk—and “we had so much rendang lamb while in Malaysia” were abundant.
The Malaysian food at Serai, one of Logan Square’s newest Thai, Malaysian and Chinese restaurants, is comparable to South Asian comfort food, and some of the dishes make you feel cozy and cheerful. Take the nyonya curry chicken, served on a pedestaled plate with hunks of soft potato swimming in a slightly sweet and nutty curry sauce alongside a plate of rice and vegetables. The sensation of eating it is like wrapping your taste buds in a warm blanket, at once delightful and soothing.
Of course, there are spicier dishes, like the pulled rendang lamb, a tender cut of meat served with a side of rice to soak up the savory juices and cool the tongue. You might also cleanse your palate with the Malaysian iced coffee, a rich energizing drink that bursts with chocolate-y sweetness. Appetizers like curry puffs, which sport a crunchy crust filled with chicken and potatoes, or a gado-gado salad with fried tofu, hard-boiled egg and peanut sauce, provide an excellent prelude to some of the menu’s heartier offerings. Some of the dishes, though, are passable. The chicken curry laksa (a spicy noodle soup) has a hefty amount of spice, but in the end, I was just wishing for a better bowl of ramen.
It’s easy to see why these dishes conjure up fond remembrances for those who are familiar with them, but even if you’ve never had Malaysian food, Serai’s food has a strange way of making you feel at ease. It may be tempting to try the Thai and Chinese dishes you know, but the varied menu encourages exploration of a cuisine that is foreign to most. Take a chance and try something different, because who knows when you’ll find yourself in Malaysia?
Atmosphere: The restaurant has two rooms, one with booths and twinkling lights (as well as a distracting TV tuned to the Food Network), and the other with four top tables and a modern industrial feel—think exposed brick and beams.
What to eat: Stick to Malaysian dishes like the curry puffs and the nyonya curry chicken.
What to drink: Serai offers caffeine-heavy drinks like Malaysian iced coffee, which is delicious but also a tad heavy, and spicy hot drinks like teh tarik. You’re on your own for booze, so pack a bottle of wine.
Where to sit: Try to grab a table in the right-hand room when you first walk in. If you can’t, avoid a table with the TV in sight, either directly or through the mirror.