It seems like Hasni “Jeff” Ghazali, owner and chef of Bentara, has been cooking his whole life. “I started even before I could walk,” he says. Ghazali began cooking with his mother, Wan Salma Wan Hussain, back in Malaysia. “The minute I could hold the mortar and pestle I helped my mother cook, pounding garlic, shallots and chili pepper.”
Ghazali would get up early in the morning and help make Nasi Lemak: basmati rice cooked in coconut milk, with hot-and-spicy stir-fried beef, dried anchovies, all fried till crisp then tossed in a ground mixture of hot chilies, garlic and ginger; boiled eggs, peanuts and cucumber slices. This is one of the most popular dishes in Malaysia, usually eaten for breakfast. He’d package up these buns wrapped in banana leaves, and his mother would sell them to coffee shops. They were so good that when the shops ran out customers started showing up at his mother’s house looking for more. Then they’d come back at lunchtime. When his father retired from the army in 1978 they started the first Bentara in his Malaysian home town.
Ghazali came to the U.S. as a computer science student in Lincoln, NE, but when he graduated he wasn’t interested in a tech career. Longing for a more cosmopolitan life, he moved to New Haven and looked for restaurant work. He bought a condo and held an open house, cooking a big Malaysian meal for his guests. His future business partner, William Christian, was there and fell in love with the food. Christian suggested Ghazali open a restaurant, and in 1995 he did just that in a small space on Foxon Road in East Haven.
Just like they did in Malaysia, people came in droves. His love of downtown city living, a customer base that was from New Haven and Fairfield County, and outgrowing his East Haven location, combined to his opening Bentara in 1997 at its present location on Orange Street. His was one of the first businesses to herald the renaissance of Ninth Square.
“Malaysian is the first fusion cuisine of the world,” Ghazali says, ticking off Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, English, Portuguese, and Dutch as ingredients in the cultural stew. “If you can close your eyes and think of all these foods and what that flavor profile will be when you take a bite, that’s Malaysian.”
Bentara’s made-to-order food is authentic Malaysian, but it’s cooked with an American palate in mind. The staff can be a good liaison between Ghazali and his customers. “Especially macho guys who want it extra hot, we make it, and they can’t eat it. I want the staff to let me know so I can tone it down for them, so they can eat it.”
At Bentara, which means “servant to royalty,” Ghazali and staff pride themselves on treating their customers like royalty.
Restaurant Website: http://www.bentara.com/
• The Detes: 76 Orange St. New Haven. 203-562-2511 Open Monday through Thursday and Sunday 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
• Price Range: Appetizers $5-$9, noodles $13-16, entrees $17-30.
• Style of Food: Authentic Malaysian
• Favorite dishes: Popia (Spring Rolls), Mee Soup Istimewa, Kuew Teow Goreng, Kelantanese Kerutuk
• Vegetarian/Vegan: Nearly everything can be made vegetarian, and much of it vegan.
• Drinks: wine, beer
• Outdoor seating: no
• Cookbook: available from Blurb, contains some of the customers’ favorite recipes
• Specials events: Weddings.