This venue has closed.
Of the crop of hipper-than-thou restaurants at Jiashan Market, Café Sambal comes with the highest expectations, given owner Cho Chong Gee's previous form in Beijing, where he runs a diverse, successful triumvirate of venues: Café Sambal, Bed Bar and minimalist restaurant Paper.
Both the Beijing and Shanghai Café Sambals serve up the same self-stated ‘authentic Malaysian menu. However, up north the restaurant's got a homey, hippie hutong vibe, while here in Shanghai, the two-storey restaurant-bar (a bar with large terrace is upstairs) is cut from the same minimalist cloth as the likes of Table No 1, with high ceilings, exposed brick walls and leather banquettes.
As for the food, it's not just Malaysian, but also incorporates elements of Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai, all prepared according to a crowd-pleasing formula's more Lost Heaven than Food Fusion.
Take the starter of chicken satay (50RMB), which comes as five single bites of chicken on a slice of cucumber skewered with a cocktail stick: it may not be traditional, but the tender chicken and textured peanut sauce are gorgeous. Similarly, an otak-otak fish cake (60RMB) served in a boat made of banana leaf is firmer, grainier and less fishy than many traditional otak-otaks, but the kaffir leaf-filled fish and coconut-rich sauce hits the right notes. A surprising highlight is the traditional oxtail soup (40RMB), slow-cooked so that the chunks of beef fall off the bone.
For mains, the beef rendang (78RMB) is saucier than many and quite spicy, with nicely tender meat, while the coconut-heavy Kapitan chicken (68RMB) is richer and sweeter than the Malaysian original. The speciality dish of four-sided beans (also known as dragon beans, 55RMB) is nicely sautéed with a homemade cashew sauce, but is a small portion and not the most exciting dish here.
For dessert, sago gula melaka (tapioca balls with palm sugar, 30RMB) is gooey and good, while the kuih dadar (30RMB)a pandan-flavoured mini crepe filled with moist dried coconut splits Malaysians and Westerners: the former find it sweeter and drier than is normal, while the latter are in raptures. The dish is definitely on the stingy side, though, with just two tiny rolls on the plate. The banana fritters with honey (30RMB) are one to miss, with overly greasy batter.
Café Sambal, then, isn’t a place to feel like you're on the Terrenganu coast. This is a hip spot with a menu that goes beyond its ‘authentic Malaysian remit. The food, though good quality and inventive, won’t blow you away, but you can expect good service and a generally slick experience.Nathan Hood