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Tucked in between towering blocks of offices lies one of Auckland's gems. Heck, it was almost our first "laneway" and quite revolutionary when the developers foisted it on us. I'm talking about the enchanting, cobbled Chancery Court. It's a favourite of mine in the summertime because sitting there on a balmy evening, with its curtain of twinkling lights spilling down into the courtyard and the happy buzz created by the surrounding eateries, you feel as though the night belongs to you.
Mamak Malaysian restaurant, situated right down the back, adds to the atmosphere with near-full tables most lunchtimes and nights, and I couldn't believe our luck that there was a free table when we turned up. The menu is full of photos for the nervous, cheeky jokes ("do you know one mee goreng could be shared between 10 people, but not ours") presumably to warn off the freeloaders who may be there for the lager only, but mostly it is a menu packed full of the dishes you'd expect to find in any night market in Kuala Lumpur, where the owners originate from, and then some. Reflecting the melting pot nature of KL, they're not purists at Mamak so we gave their gyoza - leek dumplings - a whirl as well as salt and pepper squid, Chinese style, to go with our kopi ais, Malaysian-style coffee served in large glass handles.
The coffee was outstanding, having that wonderful sweet, strong, silt-laced mouth-feel you get in Malaysia when you order a "coffee with ice". The dumplings were tender and tasty, the squid a mix of light, crispy almost-batter and soft, melting flesh. The stock-standard sweet chilli sauce was served with both. But it was a cucur udang, or prawn fritter, that really blew us away. One frisbee-like fritter, packed full of prawns, tails still intact, and spring onions that go sweet and chewy in the cooking, was deliciously frilly and caramelised around the edges and soft and springy in the middle. Lip-smackingly delicious.
Our large plates followed; char kuay teow, roti chicken curry and tofu salad. Char kuay teow, fried flat rice noodles, is the ultimate hawker dish in Malaysia and Mamak's version stands up and delivers on all the essential qualities - soft, slippery rice noodles are tangled up with crispy bean sprouts, prawns, squid, spring onions and scrambled egg - and they take extra license by throwing in some yellow noodles for good measure. Sweet, sour and flame-licked flavours bounced around our mouths while eating this dish and when we dared, we'd add minute pinches of sambal from the innocent-looking side dish. It was blisteringly hot, but we loved the challenge. When it got too much we ate mouthfuls of crisp fried cubes of tofu and slender strips of cooling cucumber, all doused in sweet sauce.
Roti are made fresh each day at Mamak and served big and square. Dunking each torn piece into the thick gravy of the chicken curry, we were rewarded with the rich spicy flavours of a home-style curry, thankfully not thickened with coconut milk, the chef favouring ground onion, ginger and a myriad secret spices instead, with generous pieces of boneless corn-fed chicken and hunks of potato nestled in the spicy sauce.
Sit outdoors and let the flavours of the food and the night waft over you; Mamak makes for an evocative summertime dining experience that will take your taste buds on a very pleasant journey.
From the menu: Leek dumplings $8, salt & pepper squid $9, prawn fritter $8, Malaysian tofu salad $9, roti chicken curry $14.50, char kuay teow $13.50
Drinks: Beer and wine, hot drinks including kopi ais (Malaysian coffee) & stocking tea
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