At the month-old Wau on the Upper West Side, the newest of Salil Mehta’s trio of New York restaurants — there’s also Laut and Laut Singapura — patrons will encounter scores of classic Southeast Asian preparations. The tiny kitchen puts out an almost unfathomable array of dishes, including Singaporean laksa, fragrant with coconut milk; Malaysian nasi lemak, laced with spicy sambal; and Indonesian nasi goreng, slicked with sweet kecap manis. But one of the venue’s chief draws, vegan fried calamari, does not appear to be an everyday staple of the region. Indeed, Mehta tells me he’s never encountered it during his travels across Asia, though perhaps that will change after more folks take this meat-free affair out for a test drive.
“Salt and pepper young coconut” is how Wau’s menu describes the dish, but make no mistake: The chef is aiming to mimic a platter of crispy squid without using any squid.
To hammer home his intentions, Mehta serves both his coconut and “actual” squid dishes the same way: lightly battered and tossed with a spicy-salty mix of garlic, long green chiles, bell peppers, and salt. Both are listed next to each other on the menu and cost $15 apiece. I sampled the vegan version on a recent weeknight — when almost every chair in the 76 seat space was packed — and can affirm that the dish is seriously delicious, whether one’s chief point of reference is “fried coconut” or “fake squid.”
A quick internet search shows vegan coconut calamari recipes on recipe sites and YouTube; Mehta said he came up with his own approach while cooking for his wife and business partner, Stacey Lo. As his story goes, Lo likes to pair calamari with a glass of fresh coconut water, so one day, Mehta used the coconut’s leftover meat for a tempura fry and presented it without disclosing the substitute ingredient. Lo did not detect the switcheroo, he tells me.
The absence of cephalopod flesh didn’t initially strike me as noticeable either. Fried calamari isn’t really an ode to the ocean the way caviar or clams express powerful notes of brine; it’s rather an effort in using a neutral fish as a tender conduit mechanism for hot peppers, marinara, aioli, or whatever else. Some might even recall an old parlor trick during the early days of Atera, a tasting menu restaurant where chefs would reveal, after a chicken noodle soup course, that the pasta therein was actually sliced squid. Surprise!
Accordingly, the first bites of tempura at Wau showcase coconut that’s golden and crispy on the outside and soft within, just like nicely cooked calamari, while more powerful flavors come from that sharp mix of chiles and garlic. The only thing that’s truly missing is the delicately rubbery QQ-bounce of the squid itself.
Mehta, however, isn’t just here to let his tempura act as fake fish the way ersatz-meat manufacturers allow plant proteins to stand in for burgers. He also deploys fatter slices of the fruit, which boast the snappy, al dente texture one might expect from firmer sections of coconut. And every now and then, amid all the spices, the coconut’s aroma comes through lucidly, flaunting its sweet, tropical aroma almost as powerfully as with Puerto Rican tembleque (or, apologies, as with a Mounds bar). It is a heck of a dish, regardless of whether the diner in question is seeking a meat-free substitute or just a really good batch of coconut.
Whether this sort of preparation will ever become a large-scale replacement for seafood, however, is a more complicated story, as coconut farming and exporting, like large-scale fishing, carries its own set of environmental repercussions. It’s also worth noting that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a widely-quoted authority for smart fish purchasing, considers most domestic squid to be a reasonably sustainable choice for dinner.
Mehta doesn’t claim to be solving large scale global issues with his tempura coconut. He’s simply serving a tasty dish that should delight both omnivores and vegans. Accordingly, I’m calling his vegan squid — his young coconut, that is — a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).