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January 21, 2014

Alice Eats: The Hawker Stall

IMG_7123Wednesdays at ArtsRiot Kitchen Collective, 400 Pine Street, Burlington, 540-0406

Just as it should, the ArtsRiot Kitchen Collective has continued to morph since I visited every pop-up dinner for a week in November. Last week, I made it to the Hawker Stall, which debuted its Wednesday night dinners last month.

But the man behind the Hawker Stall isn't new to ArtsRiot. Jeremy Bernozzi was Richard Witting's sous-chef at the space's short-lived Chinese café.

Now Bernozzi is bringing his vast knowledge of Asian cuisine to Wednesdays, with a new stop each week. He works with Misery Loves Co. vet Andrew Burke, who adds fine dining experience to Bernozzi's street food. Every other week, Burke's menus prevail with more upscale offerings, such as "inauthentic Japanese" tasting menus.


Last week, I made it to one of Bernozzi's nights. He was focused on the neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur, a destination that I've long had on my wish list. And I hadn't experienced Malaysian food since I was a kid in New York City.

Clearly, I wasn't alone in my excitement. By the time I arrived, about 7 p.m., the kitchen had already sold out of daal fritters and beef stew. I ordered coconut ice cream, but the counter help forgot to include it in my order and that, too, was gone by the time I realized it.

This isn't the Hawker Stall's fault, but careless counter service seems to be part of the deal at ArtsRiot, and the one thing that keeps me from being a regular.

But Bernozzi and Burke's food was worth it. I had never had anything quite like their rojak before. The salad featured cubes of pineapple, sour mango and apple sweetened with tamarind and palm sugar. A touch of shrimp paste added salt, while bird's-eye chiles gave it heat. Cilantro cooled it, and tofu skin, peanuts and sesame gave the dish varied texture. The deceptively complex flavors were as bright and beautiful as the salad looked.

IMG_7119Cabbage thoran brought me back to the Malaysian flavors I remember eating as a child. Glowing with turmeric, the texture was ever so slightly powdery, but I still couldn't help tearing into the shredded cabbage and toasted coconut dish. Chiles contributed just a hint of burn, but jaggery (hardened sugar that was likely responsible for the dry texture) sweetly calmed it. Those black specks in the photo at right aren't poppy seeds. They're mustard seeds, which added a nice pop of flavor and texture.

The clear star of the evening was the nasi lemak, a traditional dish of assorted small bites usually served for breakfast in Malaysia.

IMG_7122The centerpiece was a mound of coconut rice scented with pandan. The sweet grains provided a delicious base for a pile of crispy, salty little fried anchovies.

Nonya cuisine is known for combining Chinese flavors with more traditional Malaysian ones, and the inche kabin chicken wings ably displayed the fusion. The spice blend coating the crisp chicken reminded me of five spice, but with greater subtlety.

A coconut milk marinade kept the interior super moist and slightly sweet. I loved the dipping sauce on the side, a tangy combination of Worcestershire sauce, lime and mustard.

I was particularly fond of a blob of coconut chutney that sat just behind the rice, but every little taste on the plate, from a hard-boiled egg to fresh cucumber to fried peanuts, played an important role.

Bernozzi says that next week he and Burke will be taking diners to China, from which he'll serve regional specialties to celebrate the dawning of the Year of the Horse. If I can, I'll be there.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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