New York City has suffered a decrease in Malaysian restaurants over the last decade, which is a shame. The cuisine — which provides plenty of piquantly spicy food — shows influences that range from Chinese to East Indian to English to aboriginal Malay tribes, and is inherently fascinating. Chinatown once had a concentration around the corner of Allen and Canal, but no more. Which is why Williamsburg newcomer Pasar Malam ("Night Market") is so welcome. Located on a stretch of Grand Street littered with un-notable restaurants, the place makes a faint visual attempt to mimic a Malaysian or Singaporean street market, with clumps of décor that include fakey signage, a gong, cryptic color murals, a Buddhist altar (but no offerings), and a currently liquor-less bar that might have come from any colonial outpost in the tropics. Décor aside, the food is every bit as good as the best of the remaining Malaysian restaurants in town, though aimed principally at foodsters and drinkers rather than Malaysian expats.
The menu prominently includes Thai and Indonesian dishes in addition to Malaysian, such as you might find in a food court in Singapore, where every stall has its own narrow specialty. The chicken satays ($6.50) provide four small wooden skewers of poultry to an order, drenched in peanut sauce that should be spicier but is nonetheless tasty. Advertised with an illuminated sign over the open kitchen — in which an army of cooks of various ethnicities and genders labor — the rotis are offered in eight variations, while most Malaysian restaurants provide only two or three. Rotis are Indian-influenced flaky and greasy flatbreads furnished with a dipping sauce.
Of course, several of Pasar Malam's rotis are totally invented, including a "roti Elvis" sided with peanut butter and banana. No thanks. My companion and I went instead for the standard roti canai ($6). The roti was nicely tanned and of larger circumference than usual, and it came with a zingy coconut-milk curry. Though very good, the curry did not contain any chunks of chicken, which is the usual practice. That was fine with me, since the chunks usually get in the way of dipping. We also sampled the Malaysian classic chile crab ($20), which, you may remember, was once the centerpiece of Fatty Crab's menu. Served with steamed bread, this version employs lightly breaded and fried soft-shells, which makes it a million times easier to eat than the hard shell rendition – though battling with the shells is half the fun for many people.
The best dish in our Southeast Asian foray was the Malaysian luncheon standard nasi lemak ($15), presented on an Indian tali and consisting of multiple small dishes, sambals, curries, and a half boiled egg. It was really fantastic. In a pinch two could share it, given the giant cone of coconut rice in the center. The least satisfactory thing we sampled was the fruit salad called rojak (no relation to Kojak, $8), which was all jicama sticks and torn crullers and not enough actual fruit. We were nonplussed with the asam udang ($8), a quartet of largish grilled shrimps that seem to have hung themselves over the rim of a martini glass in despair over their bland seasoning.
Never mind, the menu is exciting with many dishes to explore. Though the kitchen runs slow at this point despite its fulsome staff, Pasar Malam is a pleasant enough place to sit, with a beguiling beverage selection that includes herbal drinks and teas. Weirdest is lo honko, made with licorice. Oh, for some gin to dump in it!
208 Grand St
· All Coverage of Pasar Malam [~ENY~]