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Awana, Sloane Avenue, London SW3

There aren't too many genuinely Malaysian restaurants in London, so when Awana opened at the end of last year, our interest was immediately aroused. It's hard to categorise Malaysian cuisine - apart from satay of course, which has become almost a victim of its own success. Every supermarket has dried up squashed bits of pork or chicken on sticks and a sauce that tastes barely more than doctored peanut butter. At Awana, there's a separate satay bar, where you can sit and watch the satay team at work and then eat and drink at the bar, or they'll bring it to the table. Just about anything that'll keep still long enough to allow itself to be skewered is on offer, from scallops or fillet beef, to tofu, peppers, aubergines and okra. We had a couple of skewers each of chicken, which was succulent, seared, and as one had expected, a world away from that sad supermarket stuff. You eat it with the delicious Malaysian Roti Canai flatbread which you can also watch being cooked at the bar.

The restaurant itself is very comfortable, with an abundance of warm Malay woods and batik silk hangings. The slightly small but elegant tables had not quite enough room for all the glasses and dishes that are typical of many Asian meals. The service was faultless - we were impeccably waited upon by a charming Burmese engineering student called Ahkar. There's a swish cocktail bar, from which arrived the house signature, a Hibiscus flower champagne cocktail. When you get to the bottom of the glass, you eat the flower which does wonders for your ying, or maybe yang in my wife's case.

After the satay we had a couple of starters proper.  Scallops, prawns and cuttlefish were "golden fried", rather like fritto misto mare, in a light crispy batter with a sweet chilli sauce served in a separate bowl for dipping. The dishes at Awana seem full of authentic flavours, but are served in a more Western style of individual presentation rather than for obvious sharing. I had the intriguing Otak-Otak, described as a 'steamed fish pâté with lime leaf and Asian mint with betel leaves and sour chilli'. Several slices arrived carefully laid out on a banana leaf, beige in colour with the texture of bean curd and a bewildering array of herbal and spicy flavours. 

The menu is pretty extensive (how do they do it? one wonders), with some eight or more categories including starters, soups, curries, grills, stir-fries and desserts. The slow cooked rib of beef curry was a veritable meat feast, and the combination of spices and coconut milk was more reminiscent of a Thai curry than the Indian style. I had the butterfish wrapped in banana leaf then grilled with Awana's secret herb and spice combination. Our waiter Ahkar brought a small side table alongside ours, where he expertly removed the close textured fish from its charred casing of banana leaf. All the succulent goodness had been imprisoned and the release of many unusual almost gamey aromas was arresting. Side dishes of various rices are modestly priced at £2.50, but you must try the sautéed anchovy and peanut, it's crunchy, delicious and not at all overpowering.

 Desserts are the one area where many oriental restaurants fall down - through no real fault of their own, it must be said - because there is not a pudding or patisserie tradition in Asian culture. At Awana there are some really interesting sounding ideas, like Bubur Hitam (black sticky rice with warmed cream - probably delicious but not a very tempting description). When I was at school, there was a quartet of terrible milk puddings we called the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In order of abomination they were rice, semolina, sago and tapioca, (commonly known as frog-spawn). Having toyed with idea of Awana's Bobo Chacha (sweet potato, taro root and jelly in warm coconut cream), I spotted the Sago Kastard (baked egg custard with sago, coconut and caramel). I'm so glad I put away my childish prejudices as it was a fabulous, unctuous creation, not at all heavy, making a perfect end to an interesting and unusual meal. 

Clifford Mould February 2006

Awana, 85 Sloane Avenue, London SW3
T: 020 7584 8880
reservations@awana.co.uk

Prices Starters £5.50-£8.80, Curries £12.50-£15, Grills £12.50-£25, Stir-fries £9.50-£19.10, 
Side dishes £2-£3.50, Desserts £6-£7.50

Drinks: An international wine list is overseen by head sommelier Li Ya Nan 
House wines are: Semillion Chadonnay, Mango Bay, Australia 2005 £19 (£5.25 glass)
Tempranillo, Rascal, Castilla La Mancha, Spain 2003 £22 (£5.75 glass)
The bar offers an extensive list of specialty whisky-based cocktails.

Opening Hours Restaurant: Lunch daily noon-3pm, dinner daily 6pm-11pm (Thursday-Saturday 11.30pm, and Sunday 10.30pm)
Bar and Satay Bar: Monday-Wednesday noon-11pm, Thursday-Saturday noon-11.30pm, Sunday noon-10.30pm

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