While Kopi-O is the first restaurant that Azam Ismail has ever owned, chances are that you have enjoyed some of his creations before. “My dad was a chef at Ring of Fire, Adam’s Sustainable Table and Lucky Noodle,” his son Aaron Ismail says. “This is a dream he has always had, and we’ve always wanted to make it happen for him.”
The newly opened Malaysian restaurant prides itself on being a unique dining experience, as Malaysian food is an underrepresented cuisine in Eugene. Intersecting elements of Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines mean that Malaysian food encompasses a wide variety of cultures and sensibilities, with British, Portuguese and Dutch influences also seeping in. That, Ismail says, is part of what makes Malaysian food so exciting.
“Those culinary traditions tend to merge, but also remain distinct,” he says. “So what you have is a huge variety of dishes to choose from and a huge diversity of flavors. It’s really everything under the sun.” Among the favorites are kom pum curry (a Malaysian-style chicken curry), beef rendang (slowly cooked beef with curry), satay with peanut sauce and laksa (noodle soup with a coconut milk broth).
In addition to the modestly priced offerings — most of the dishes are under $10 — and the quality of the food relative to the price, diners will be intrigued by the fact that the menu will morph, which makes sense considering the cuisine’s penchant for variety. “Whether it’s seasonal or market-inspired specials, I expect us to [change the menu periodically],” Ismail says. “We want to remain true to the Malaysian palate and be authentic, but we’re still pulling from a number of different countries and even Western techniques sometimes. My dad is pretty creative, so we’re always evolving.”
The restaurant is named for a traditional coffee that is served in Malaysia and Singapore, and it is inspired by kopitiams, or coffee shops. They’re not like your neighborhood Starbucks. “Kopitiams are somewhere in between a diner and a pub, in a Western sense,” Ismail says. “It’s a place where people meet, hang out, relax and find their favorite dish, but the lines are blurred a bit in terms of what you can eat because there are so many options that constitute Malaysian food.”
Ismail envisions Kopi-O becoming a deep-seated part of the fabric of Eugene’s food community. “We want our neighborhood restaurant to be comfortable and casual, but we also want to show that the food can be really exciting and that the dining experience can be really special,” he says. “Our goal is to expand people’s palates and have them try some new and unique flavors.”
Kopi-O is open 11:30 am to 9 pm Tuesday through Sunday at 1530 Willamette St., 458-205-8356.
Pictured above: Azam Ssmail heats up some malaysian flavors. Photo by Todd Cooper.