LOOK WHO'S BACK: Washington lost a distinctive neighborhood restaurant when Straits of Malaya closed in 1999, in order for chef and co-owner Lawrence Tan to care for his ailing mother. "The doctor gave her two years," recalls the son, who left the stove but picked up a massage therapy license and an MBA from the city's Southeastern University while tending to his parent.
Lucky for him, his mother rallied. And fortunately for us, she encouraged Tan to "go out and make some money." And that he has, returning to his former restaurant in Dupont Circle -- and to 15-hour days of shopping, cooking and otherwise babysitting at the recently reopened Straits of Malaya (1836 18th St. NW; 202-483-1483). "I always wanted to come back," Tan told us via cell phone when we caught up with him at a produce market last week. "But it's a lot of work!"
The food in his small dining room, with its charming panda drawings, and on the restaurant's rooftop, facing the hungry hordes at Lauriol Plaza, is every bit as appealing as regulars may remember it. Rojak -- a warm salad of carrots, jicama and pineapple in a sauce of ground peanuts and shrimp paste -- makes a zesty introduction while curried Chinese eggplant, offered with chicken or tofu, is rich with coconut milk, cumin, fennel and other seasonings. Tan's mother now lives in Winnipeg, Canada, but she left behind something for diners to enjoy: her recipe for five-spice roll, fashioned from ground beef seasoned with star anise and cinnamon and bundled into crisp bean curd wrappers. Picture meatloaf by way of Malaysia -- pampering from far away. In other words, don't miss it.