Summary: Red Kwali tries hard but we found both its ambiance and food disappointing.
I red about Red Kwali in the East Bay Express and was eager to try it. I love South East Asian food in general, and Malay food seems to be a smorgasbord of all the cuisines of the region. Plus while the Express reviewed criticized certain dishes, overall the reviewer seems to have had a great time. I wish we could say the same!
Located in a strip mall in Newark, Red Kwali is a nice enough place. With its dark-red, green and yellow walls, stylish furniture and semi-open kitchen it tries hard at the "Asian Bistro" look I've written about in other reviews. It even goes a step further by dressing its wait staff all in black. But somehow it doesn't succeed at capturing the full effect. The problem may be that its square room is too large and too open, or that its fluorescent lightening is too grayish and even too bright, but in any case the place never feels more than a glorified Chinese restaurant.
We had dinner there early a Saturday evening in November 2005, and there were only a couple of other tables occupied - though more people were seated as the evening went on. The lack of customers meant that the unoccupied wait staff was hovering around, which I always find annoying. It also meant that service was good.
Red Kwali's menu is pretty extensive and includes many well known dishes as well as things that were new to us. Faced with such a large choice we decided to go for the chef's menu (or whatever it was called - $28 for two), figuring that it would present their signature dishes. If these indeed were their specialties, Red Kwali is in trouble.
Dinner started with a double portion of Roti Canai ($2.25 each if ordered off the menu). The roti canai was nice, with that flakyness/doughiness that makes roti so enticing. Mika, our 3.5 year old, particularly enjoyed them. But they were maybe 6" in diameter, pretty small for such a hefty price. The accompanying curry sauce was OK, Mike liked it, but was too spicy for my taste. More problematically, it tasted flat.
The next dish to come was the Pie Tee Tarts which we ordered separately ($6 for 5 tarts). The little tarts were filled with thinly sliced carrots, jicama, cucumbers and prawns and served with a sweet chili sauce. They were very cute and both Mike and Mika liked them - though Mika took the de-constructive approach to eating them. The sauce was very nice.
This was followed by the Basil Beef ($8 if ordered separately) - slices of beef mixed with basil leaves and served with a very spicy sauce. The beef had that weird chewy texture that beef at Chinese restaurants often has, and while I liked the flavor the basil imparted it, it was hard to taste behind all that spice and salt. It's definitely a dish neither of us would order again.
After this came the string beans, which I think were served with the belacan sauce ($8 if ordered separately). After the beef, it was very difficult to distinguish their flavor, but the sauce they came with was pleasant. Still, Mike has not rushed to eat the leftovers.
After that came the Sumatran BBQ chicken ($8 if ordered separately). This dish tasted almost exactly like Thai BBQ, only not as good. The chicken was a tad undercooked, and the skin was flaccid and generally unappetizing. The accompanying sweet chilli sauce tasted exactly like the sauce you get with bbq chicken at Thai restaurants. It was good, but a tired flavor. The portions consisted of two legs of chicken, cut into three pieces each. It was a little bit hard to get the meat off the bone without the use of a knife; I guess I'm just not so dextrous with a fork.
Dessert was a large bowl of Pulut Hitam, black sweet rice with coconut cream ($3.25 if ordered separately). I'd never tried this dish before and I was personally underwhelmed. It was pretty insipid, and the very light hint of coconut couldn't help much. On the plus side, it wasn't very sweet and my two girls really liked it.
In all, however, it was a disappointing dinner, specially for the price (over $40 after sides and drinks). Next time I'm in the mood for food of the region, I think I'll head to Banyan Garden in Union City instead.
Red Kwali Restaurant
39055 Cedar Blvd., Suite 108