We decided to return to Suffolk House for lunch, after a 5-year hiatus, yesterday. It was done on a whim, actually, as we were driving to the Gurney Drive waterfront for a Japanese meal but, suddenly, having Continental cuisine seemed more attractive. A quick right turn from where we were driving on Scotland Road brought us into the lush gardens and greenery where Suffolk House, an elegant Georgian mansion built in 1805, is located, with the Ayer Itam River meandering lazily by it.
It was a sunny, languid day, and we had to resist the temptation to just sit on one of the garden benches and bask under the sunshine.
But lunch beckons. Suffolk House’s Executive Chef, Mathijs Nanne, is Dutch, but describes his style as more “Australian” due to his formative years spent in Sydney. He 's been the heading the kitchen here since 2016, but the last time I was here, it was still under the previous executive chef who’d offered a more British menu.
Truth be told, I never really liked Suffolk House’s main dining room - it was too vast & dark for my taste. I could imagine how foreboding it was 200 years ago, when it was lit by hanging candelabras of candles.
This was the exact space where Sir Stamford Raffles, back in 1818, met Penang’s Acting Governor, William Edward Phillips, to discuss his plans for the founding of Singapore the following year.
We were the earliest lunch guests, so were shown to the “brightest” spot in the dining room (upon my request), which was next to the sun-lit tea-room next door.
We started off with a couple of cocktails - a Suffolk’s fruit punch and a Strawberry Daiquiri:
Cream of cauliflower soup - it came sprinkled with sourdough “granola”, thyme & a what was described as “spiced oil”. Quite interesting - almost like an East-meets-West mulligatawny soup, but without the curry powder.
I love creamy soups, and this one did just fine.
My lunch companion’s starter was much less successful: the "Rendang" of chicken rillettes, with beetroot crémeux, pickled dates & 5-spiced granola seemed a tad misnamed. There was nothing on the plate resembling rendang, which ought to be a dry-ish, thickened curry.
The tiny clump of meat in the centre of the dish looked more like English potted chicken, flanked by garnishes in various altered states: gel, liquid, semi-solid. The tastes ran in one direction, from sour to sourer to puckered-lips sourest.
The noodle dish that followed was, in my opinion, the most successful dish at lunch today: the so-called White Laksa. Described on the menu as “pumpkin noodles, chicken & prawn, served with ginger bud-dried chili relish” - it turned out to be Sydney-style “Aussie laksa”! Yes, Malacca has the Nyonya laksa, whereas Singapore has our own Katong laksa, whilst Penang has its famous asam laksa, and Borneo its Sarawak laksa.
In Sydney, for the longest time, I’d always gone back to the The Malaya for its own unique brand of laksa: lightly curried, ultra-creamy, and topped with luscious cuts of poached chicken breast-meat. I dreamt of Sydney’s “Malayan laksa” when I was back in Singapore. Surrounded by various types of Asian laksa, I’d yearn for their Aussie counterpart.
The Malaya is located in Sydney’s trendy King Street Wharf dining precinct nowadays but, in its original Haymarket location back in the early 60s, it was a favorite hangout amongst journalists from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) headquarters located right across from it. The journos, covering the on-going Vietnam War, at the time, would converge at The Malaya, which became a de facto staff canteen for them.
The Malaya’s laksa was so popular, it spawned copycats all over Sydney, and became a genre all of its own. I now seek out this kind of “Aussie laksa” in not just in Sydney, but Perth, Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.
Suffolk House here in Penang just gave me a taste of what I’d regard as a “comfort food”, almost - Aussie-style white laksa! I’ll come back here again for this. Again and again.
The other mains were good, but not spectacular:
The braised lamb shank, with galangal & cardamom, spiced carrots & potato mash, served with a mélange of radishes & shoots sounded fussy on the menu, but turned out to be a competently prepared Anglo-Indian dish which would not look out of place on the Governor’s Table in Calcutta at the turn of the century British India, or on the buffet spread at Raffles Hotel Singapore’s Sunday curry tiffin lunch.
The texture of the lamb shank was perfect: tender, yet retaining that toothsome bite we’d look for in a red meat dish.
The duo of chicken pies with salad, served with tomato & roselle ketchup looked like escapees from a deli or pie shop somewhere. The pies had light, buttery flaky pastry on top, but slightly thinner-than-expected short-crust pastry shells at the bottom, rendering them pretty wobbly. The creamy chicken-meat filling suits the local palate here: sharp, distinct flavors.
Dessert was bread-and-butter pudding, done very, very well indeed: light and custardy.
I’m still thinking of the “White Laksa” right now.
250, Ayer Itam Road,10460 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +604-228 3930
Opening hours: 11am to 11pm daily