Chefs from Borneo are thin on the ground in this neck of the woods – or any neck of the Western world.
There are no fewer than six in one restaurant, Yan Woo in Portsmouth.
Vietnamese-born Tring Lim, her husband Yan Lim and brother-in-law Woo Lim, from Malaysia, of which Borneo is a part, opened this colourful neighbourhood restaurant five years ago. A succession of chefs from the Borneo village of Sandakan have arrived to cook for their Western brethren who crowd out the restaurant, attracted by the food, a Malay-Chinese mix, and the friendly atmosphere.
Tring's all-seeing presence is also part of the restaurant's attraction. Keen to help those who are not familiar with the dishes, she is on hand to guide, suggest and inform. Malaysian dishes include udang sambal (king prawns cooked in prawn paste with a chilli sauce); ayam santan (chicken drumsticks braised in coconut milk); ikan nyonya (monkfish in a tamarind sour sauce with chilli); lembu rending (beef curry with a coconut sauce) or nasi goreng (fried rice with chicken, prawns, onions, peppers and a touch of chilli sauce).
Or come for wok-fried poultry, duck, pork, beef and king prawn dishes.
The kitchen is equally adept at turning out sweet and sour choices, fried noodles, Singapore rice dishes, soups and starters, including top hats which got my vote.
'Sen Ngui (the head chef] makes these little cases which look like top hats and fills them with minced pork, bean shoots and Chinese mushrooms. They are difficult to make as the moulds need to be painted with the paste and take a long time to do.'
Naturally, I had to try these although the informative Tring says they're usually stuffed with a hard vegetable, nigh on impossible to source in the UK.
Prices are moderate. Many main course dishes are around 5 to 6.
Eight little pastry top hats with a home-made chilli sauce were demolished in as many minutes.
A curried monkish followed – tender spirals of fish, onion, large red chillies, beancurd, aubergine, small slices of okra and tomato in a coconut soup making this a fine dish. Spooned over coconut rice it was a reminder of how good home cooking – for this is what these dishes represent – from another country can be. Chinese broccoli (kai lan) – large flat-leaved and long stemmed – was superb, just cooked and glistening with ginger.
A passable glass of Chilean Sauvignon Chardonnay was 2.50. Waiting staff are of the 'you-are-our-honoured guest' frame of mind service tinged with savvy Western influences.
A finger bowl here, the choice of bowl and chopsticks or plate and fork there sums up their thoughtful approach. Only the Western music – Billy Joel, anyone? – is a tad booming.
Canny businesswoman Tring, Yan, Woo, waiting staff and the Borneo chefs add greatly to this neighbourhood with their friendly, restaurant.
I'll eat my top hat if it isn't jam-packed morning, noon and night. My bill came to 22.40, not including service.
Yan Woo, 33 Kingston Road Portsmouth. (023) 9282 1888.
Open: Midday-2pm and 5pm-11pm seven days a week.
Disabled access: Yes.
How to get there: Kingston Road is a continuation of London Road, from the north and Fratton Road, from the south of the city, the restaurant on the right from the north and on the left from the south. On-street parking.
Kia Russell and Sam Wilkinson, from Portsmouth: 'We come here infrequently and then wonder why we don't come more often!' Kia says. 'We have shared one of the set menus with sweet and sour pork, fried rice and some other dishes but really prefer choosing from the a la carte menu as it's more interesting.'
'I loved the lembu kari, beef which has been fried in a wok with a curry sauce and the beancurd but my favourite is the king butter prawns,' Sam added. 'It's a really nice, straightforward, relaxing place.'