Where the Fishhead Is King 

wouldn't have pegged Anna as an adventurous eater before we arrived at Banana Garden, but she showed her true colors the moment we opened the door. "Let's go for the fishhead hot pot with curry," she exclaimed, pointing at the specials board. "It looks good."

"Okay," I said. I'm easy that way. Once we got our menus, illustrated with full-color photos, Anna also lobbied for the whole roast crab with special aromatic flavor ("It's mouth-watering," proclaimed the menu) and jumped at the water spinach (kang kung, or convolvulus) with shrimp-paste sauce when I pointed it out. Our friend Allwyn gamely waived her vegan regimen for the night and ordered Cantonese chow fun in gravy with vegetables and seafood. We were all stretching our boundaries.

Then we agreed on appetizers: satay chicken and stuffed Indian roti. What kind of culinary hodgepodge was this restaurant serving -- pan-Asian fusion? Yes and no. Banana Garden specializes in Singaporean, Malaysian, and Thai cuisines.

Singapore is one of Asia's foremost melting pots. In the early 1800s, the British took over the island, just off the Malaysian mainland, bringing indentured workers from South India and encouraging Cantonese, Teochow, and Hokkien workers from southern China to settle on the island, joining the ethnic Malaysian inhabitants. Now that the empire's sun has set, those three major ethnic groups dominate the tiny country now known for its high-rises and cheerfully rigid laws -- and its vibrantly multicultural cooking.

Opened six months ago next door to the Pacific East Mall, Banana Garden has caught the attention of Richmond locals willing to wait twenty to thirty minutes for a table on weekend nights. Though the faux-thatched exterior and the lettering on the sign still evoke the former tenant's South Pacific motif, the interior has been stripped of all luau kitsch except a large, burbling fishpond in the center of the brightly lit dining room.

My friends and I sipped haltingly at our fruit "juices" -- like aguas frescas, only three times sweeter -- while we watched appetizers being made in an open section of the kitchen. One cook dramatically rolled, stretched, and threw balls of dough into translucent, paper-thin rounds, which he'd then crumple up or fold around fillings and toss onto an oiled griddle. These turned out to be the roti. We sampled the roti canai, the crumpled-up pancake, crispy where the dough had touched the griddle, and the square roti telur filled with a scramble of eggs, red onions, and peppers. The sweet dough and mild fillings came alive when coated with the dipping sauce, a traditional Indian curry heavy on the coriander. Our curry-rubbed skewers of satay chicken were drizzled with a sweet peanut sauce that was pleasant rather than pungent.

Most of the entrées, though, tasted both pleasant and pungent. Malaysian-Singaporean cuisine makes use of coconut-milk curries; elaborate spice mixtures centering around lemongrass, shallots, and galangal; and shrimp paste, one of those ingredients that smell like chemical hell but meld into complex sauces, amping the flavor way up.

The salty condiment dominated the chunky sauce coating our water spinach, a grassy-tasting vegetable with meltaway leaves and hollow, fibrous stems. Another aromatic, chunky sauce redolent with shrimp paste, lemongrass, and spices smothered our whole roasted crab. It was messy -- the good kind of messy.

Our willingness to experiment paid off. The hot pot, burbling away over a sterno flame, contained a fragrant coconut-milk curry with a hint of kaffir lime and lemongrass and a thin oil slick on top. The fishheads had been split; we picked off as much as we could find of the moist but meaty flesh on the "collar" (around the gills). Then we ordered a bowl of white rice to soak up the spicy sauce. The further the kitchen strays from Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine, though, the less successful the results. The menu promised that the Cantonese wok-fried chow fun would be paired with crispy fried noodles, seafood, and vegetables. When a thick seafood stew smelling of oxidized garlic arrived, we tried to send it back. Our waiter refused to take it. And where were the crispy noodles? Lifeless, submerged under the tasteless "gravy." Similarly, the tom yum soup with seafood that I ordered on my second visit proved to be a mild, mediocre version of the Thai classic, with a slight tomato tinge to the tart broth and overcooked prawns, scallops, and squid.

But it appealed to my second group of companions: my mother and sister, visiting from Indiana, and a local cousin. With gastronomic tastes somewhat more conservative than mine, they steered toward plates that resembled the Southeast Asian cuisine they knew -- and to fried food.

They loved the thick, crispy triangles of fried tofu satay that were split in two and stuffed with julienned green papaya, bean sprouts, and carrots. Architecturally arranged on the plate, the triangles were coated with a spicier version of the satay peanut sauce. This same sauce overwhelmed the gado gado, an Indonesian-Malaysian "salad" that would never make it into a Jenny Craig cookbook. At the bottom: julienned green papaya, bean sprouts, and thinly sliced hard-boiled eggs. On top: two layers of crispy tofu and deep-fried shrimp wontons.

Though I was the biggest seafood lover of the bunch, I was the only person at table who didn't like the shrimp-paste sauce on the Malaysian-style green beans. Had the green beans spent a little more time cooking, their taste would have melded with and tempered the nubbly bits of garlic and dried shrimp that coated them.

I had no other complaints about the rest of the food that night. However, I couldn't stop grinding my teeth over the chaotic, harried service. For a $20-per-person (or more) meal, the owners have no excuse not to hire bussers. The servers smiled pleasantly, but that's about all they had time to do. They'd pass the table so fast we'd see their smiles go through the Doppler effect, red-shifting into pursed moues of determination.

So we focused on our entrées. We loved the Rendang beef, cubes of meat stewed in a coconut-milk curry that had reduced into a thick, spicy paste. I had seen a fresh pineapple half stuffed with fried rice at several tables, so I ordered it. The delicacy of the pineapple flavor surprised me -- it wasn't sweet or acidic, and was just enough to perfume the savory rice and shrimp. Another dish whose visual appeal matched its flavor was the colorful mango chicken, served in two mango half-shells. Spilling over the sides were slices of chicken breast stir-fried with fresh mangoes, red and green peppers, and onions in a bright sweet-tart sauce. Just as we had done on my first visit, we ate so much of the rich, spicy food that we couldn't even consider dessert.

I hate -- and love -- leaving a restaurant after two visits with the feeling that I haven't tasted everything I need to taste. It's rare to find a restaurant in the Bay Area that specializes in Singaporean and Malaysian dishes, so take a tip from me: At Banana Garden, don't waste precious belly space on anything else. Banana Garden3150 Pierce Street, Richmond. 510-559-9388. Open daily.

11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. and 5:00-10:00 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.

11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. and 5:00-10:30 p.m. Fri.

11:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m. Sat. (open continuously)

11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m. Sun. (open continuously)

Wheelchair accessible.Banana Garden

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