You wouldn’t know it from a stroll through York, but the city that appears predominantly white and mono-cultural actually has 92 different nationalities and it’s a place where 78 different languages are spoken.
It’s beginning to show in the city’s food offer. There are Italians, of course, a French, a Japanese, a Korean, a Turkish, a Polish and a sprinkling of Indian, Chinese and Thai and in April the former Jade Garden Chinese opposite Clifford’s Tower morphed into Ning, York’s newest and, as far as I’m aware, first Malaysian restaurant.
Ning first established itself in Manchester in 2006, when former quantity surveyor and self-taught chef Norman Musa and his business partner and former town planner Andy Spracklen, threw down their calculators and slide-rules and moved into the risky business of restaurants.
Spracklen is manager, MD, marketing man and PR, and if that weren’t enough, he’s also Musa’s manager and agent. Usually it’s only top-drawer celeb chefs that have an agent let alone a manager, but the website tells us that Norman Musa is “Europe’s leading Malaysian chef… TV personality, author and tutor” so clearly he needs one.
Besides the two restaurants, Ning offers cookery courses, a restaurant consultancy service, a diary of cookery demonstrations at food festivals from Edinburgh to Newport, there’s the cookery book, the Facebook page, the App. He’s appeared on Masterchef Malaysia 2011 and was race chef to Lotus Racing F1 team. There’s even Ning TV with videos of Musa at work.
But that’s enough of the energetic Norman Musa. There was no sign of him when we lunched at Ning recently. He apparently was up in Edinburgh demonstrating dishes at the Festival, so we made do with black and white photographs of him in the restaurant and a flyer that came with the bill.
And the food. I’ve never been to Malaysia, so I’ve no idea how authentic the kitchen is at Ning, but I have eaten in Thailand, India, China, Portugal, all places from where Malaysian food culture takes its influences. Happily all the spices and flavourings were in place on the menu: chilli, turmeric, tamarind, pandan leaves, lemon grass, lime leaves, coconut milk.
The a la carte offers 10 appetizers inspired, says the menu, by the street food of Penang: squid, prawn toast, spring rolls, gado gado salad, satay, flatbread with curry sauce all for around a fiver. Main courses are divided into curries, wok fried noodles, wok fried dishes and Malaysian Specialities – steamed sea bass, chicken with curry – Musa’s favourite dishes inherited from his mother.
Prices for mains lean to the high side for Oriental cuisine: £10 climbing to £14.50 for the “specialities”, with rice and noodles an extra £1.50-£2.50, but there are good offers such as the £7.95 lunch deal and £13.95 evening meal.
For starters we went for two deep fried dishes: soft shell crab and prawn fritters, and both were excellent. If Georgetown is the heart of street food in Penang then it exports well to Tower Street, York. The prawns along with beansprouts and tofu came in a generous heap in a tangle of light, crisp, batter with a bowl of crunchy, spicy peanut sauce alongside.
Instant approval, too, for the small soft shell crabs. The batter was not quite optimum crisp but reinforced by a rich, concentrated dipping sauce – a chilli sambal that mixed sour tamarind with something sweet - it produced another winning dish.
To follow, rendang chicken was a gentle, coconut-infused curry with a base of onions and multiple flavours of garlic, lemongrass, chilli, lime leaves and galangal. It was good, gently spiced but with the chicken marginally overdone, it didn’t quite match the starters. Our other main was one of Musa’s specialities: sea bass fillets and spinach in a sauce of soy, ginger and spring onion. It was a fresh, light and fragrant dish and, while Malaysian spicing is admittedly mild, for my taste it needed more fire in its belly.
They don’t go big on desserts in Asia, nor did we. I did see the seri kaya go by, a layered cake of sticky rice, pandan and coconut milk and it was good to note Yee Kwan, the Sheffield-based Asian ice cream makers, on the list with their flavours of black sesame seed, toasted coconut and chocolate and chilli.
The service was prompt and tirelessly polite. The Laotian beer lived up to its billing as honeyed and delicious. The room with its pink drapes and flower wallpaper was conventionally 90s. Having read beforehand that the décor is “simple but chic… inspired by the trendy noodle bars of Asian cities” then one man’s trendy is another man’s passé. The flowery green carpet and the obligatory fish tank looked more like a tribute to the premises’ Chinese restaurant days.
But the food is where it matters, and Ning was good rising to very good, a welcome addition to York’s ethnic range if not quite convincing me that I was sampling the work of the self-proclaimed leading Malaysian chef in Europe. Still, I may even try cooking some of Norman Musa’s dishes, because the man himself will be demonstrating at York Food Festival later this month and I’ll be there. I’m intrigued to meet the maestro so long as he promises to moderate all the PR guff. You’re in Yorkshire now, lad.
Ning Malaysian Restaurant, 12-13 Tower Street, York YO1 9SA. Tel: 01904 636481, www.ningcatering.com. Three course a la carte is approximately £23 plus wine and service. Norman Musa will be at the York Food Festival on September 29 and 30. ww.yorkfoodfestival.com.