Over. Malaysian food in a burgers-and-oysters neighborhood always seemed to good to be true. (5/18/2016)
Sometimes I think Instagram is good for nothing (unless you consider foodie weddings/group vacation rental parties/storm clouds over skyscrapers as something), and other days it’s great for letting me know that there’s a new Malaysian restaurant down the street hosting a media event where apparently everyone’s eating nasi lemak. What’s this? Pasar Masam on Grand Street? I was there the next day.
I wasn’t so sure about Malaysian food in Williamsburg, but I will give the restaurant credit for opening on one of the soupiest weeks of the year. It might not be a real open air night market–the no nonsense back-lit signage advertising multiple permutations of roti is spot-on, though–but they couldn’t have orchestrated the humid monsoon effect any more authentically. I can’t think of a single outdoor meal eaten in Malaysia where I wasn’t sweating to the point of distraction.
Pasar Malam is from the same owners as Laut near Union Square, the mishmash Thai-Malaysian restaurant you rarely hear much about. Here, there is pad thai, papaya salad and tom yum on the menu, but that’s it. I don’t think they even need it. We’re over saturated with Thai restaurants already and suffering a dearth of Malaysian, especially in Brooklyn.
I managed to rope in two others on short notice so I could try more dishes (I’m always amazed at the diversity of food quirks: one doesn’t like hard-boiled eggs, the other eggs scrambled with seafood, i.e. char kway teow and chili crab). I will be back for the meatier things like murtabak. And maybe brunch, which is supposed to happen? The roti station is prominently featured at the top of the menu and in the back of the restaurant, so you can’t really pass on the flaky, grilled pancakes (plus your server–all super invested in your trying and liking the food–probably won’t let you). Roti prata is a slightly thicker, chewier version of the more-common-in-NYC roti canai, and served with a thin lightly spiced curry, no chicken or potato chunks. One person could easily eat a serving themselves, and might want to, but only make that rookie mistake if you don’t plan to order much else.
Rojak isn’t a superstar with the name recognition of satay, or even laksa, but the salad exemplifies Malaysian flavors with its sweet-savory balance that teeters on weird. Ostensibly, it’s a crunchy fruit salad, made up here with pineapple, green mango and apples, but also cucumber and jicama, plus chopped up fried cruellers for a little chew (I like the versions that also include squid for even more chew). The whole thing gets dressed in a thick, burnt umber shrimp paste dressing (I could’ve used more) that’s like a fishy molasses and garnished with sesame seeds and crushed peanuts. Mexican fruit preparations with salt, chile and lime get at this odd combo, Thai papaya salads with dried shrimp, a little palm sugar and fish sauce get pretty close, but nothing really reaches the fruity-fishy intensity like rojak.
Satay always seems boring to me, but the classic grilled chicken with peanut sauce was sweet, smoky and in appropriately demure-sized chunks to retain moisture. While the flavors aren’t watered down and I wouldn’t really call this nouveau anything, there are some creative liberties taken–the Hainan chicken rice being fried rather than steamed may give some pause–for instance, our server really wanted us to try the tandoori satay. Who knows? It’s probably good?
If you want serious liberties taken, look no further than the new Burger King Malaysia tie-in with the latest Transformers movie. This potato chip-topped hot dog could give a Colombian perro caliente a run for its money, if not for the chicken wiener.
And as if to be proven wrong in my know-it-all self-sufficiency, we were brought a butter garlic prawn each after ignoring the glowing recommendation. Yes, they were good, really good, and like a spicier, curry leaf-fragrant version of salt-and-pepper shrimp.
To be honest, after you’ve had chili crab twice in your life, the novelty wears off and you might just move on to less messy dishes that don’t require extracting precious morsels from goopy shells. That was why I was not bothered by the use of soft-shell crab in the Singaporean classic. The sauce leaned more sweet and sour than spicy, as tradition dictates, and really the egg just gives it body a la egg drop soup minus the massive amounts of corn starch. Thankfully, no one messed with the accompaniment: fluffy mantou, available steamed or fried. Don’t think that I didn’t notice that orange chile ring artfully placed on the tip of the battered leg.
The other thought I had when first seeing photos online of the conical mounds of coconut rice was that Pasar Malam was really going to mess with my plan to not eat (I said nothing about drinking) any carbs until my birthday, 23 days into the future. Clearly, I caved before I barely began. More than just some curry, rice and a few fried anchovies and peanuts tucked into a banana leaf package to go, this was serious sit-down dinner-style nasi lemak. The chicken curry also comes with multiple shrimpy, fishy sambals, pickled achar–and that requisite hard-boiled egg half.
I’m not convinced that Williamsburg is full of the educated eaters the owner thinks there is, but I do appreciate the presence of a fish head curry. And yes, I was warned it was a fish head. And yet I was dismayed by the lack of an actual head, eyes intact, cheeks for the picking. It comes pre-hacked, which actually makes it fussier to eat, necessitating a lot of sucking gelatinous bits from nooks and crannies rather than being able to dig in yourself with chopsticks from a more stable mass of flesh. Served with okra and green beans, this is a creamy, coconut milk-based version, not the hotter, orange-tinged broth style.
There is no liquor license yet. There is a Michael Jackson, though, my favorite un-PC name for the popular black-and-white soy milk and grass jelly drink.
Pasar Malam has made me a little excited about Brooklyn dining, something I had been feeling jaded about recently. I’m only sad that I finally got an interesting, non-meatball/bbq/fried chicken restaurant so near to my apartment, mere months before I move to Queens. Nice knowing ya.
Pasar Malam * 208 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY