The skate sweeps in like a sloop, the deep-fried cartilage wing sticking up like a sail, with the deck below made of the fillet, awash with a sharp sambal of fried shallots, scallions, and chiles. Diners at surrounding tables crunch the wing like a giant potato chip.
At 30 E. 20th, near Broadway, Nemesis is the challenging name of a new Flatiron restaurant that opened in late September. It’s a follow-up to Williamsburg’s excellent Antidote, which caused a stir when it opened last year by rendering the pungent and incendiary flavors of Sichuan cuisine without pulling punches (also throwing some Shanghai dishes into the mix). The setting is a minimalist space on a side street, and despite an emphasis on cocktails, it was impossible to treat the place merely as another opportunity to booze it up with friends.
Nemesis is a bit fancier, and it takes Southeast Asia — principally Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines — as its culinary inspiration via chef Francis Tanrattana, who is of Thai descent. The interior is an L-shaped series of rooms with three seating areas: an austere front section with a super-sized elephant mural, a long hallway, and a glitzier back barroom with lotus-themed art and an array of bamboo fans. On both visits, I sat with friends in the glow of a vertical terrarium filled with tropical succulents that is the focus of the hallway.
That sambal skate ($32) falls among the chef’s signature dishes. Another is crying tiger steak ($39), a Thai dish popularized over the last few years at places like Zaab Zaab and Lum Lum — where it consists of a nicely marbled rib-eye on a bed of shallots. Here, it’s an organic, grass-fed skirt steak with lots of beefy flavor and a pleasantly bouncy texture. It comes with the usual Isan meat dip: a nam jim jeaw flaunting its strong lime, tamarind, and fish-sauce flavors.
If you have deep pockets, go for the king river prawns ($49), freshwater crustaceans native to the rivers of Southeast Asia and behemoth in size. Of the three sauces, pick the herbal green one for its pungency rather than the curry or shallot sauces. Yes, peeling these things and extracting the meat is a messy pain in the ass, but worth it.
Like Antidote, Nemesis is fixated on cocktails. Many on the list of nine themed ones ($17 to $20) are somewhat screwy. A case in point is the hao low ($18), featuring Japanese gin, earl grey tea, yuzu, honey, mango, and, on top, cookie crumbs mixed with yogurt foam. Otherwise stick with a beer or glass of cava or lambrusco ($15), the latter the sweet and fizzy Italian red served cold, more often seen in newfangled pizzerias. It goes especially well with strongly flavored Southeast Asian beef and pork dishes.
Perhaps because of its emphasis on cocktails and wine, Nemesis also functions as a sort of Southeast Asian tapas bar, and the list of appetizers, along with modest-sized servings of noodles, is far longer than the entrees. Luckily, some of the apps are pretty big. Best is the corn ribs ($14), kernels artfully stripped from their cobs, soaked in a tamarind-and-cilantro sauce so spicy you’ll find yourself carefully licking the whips after you finish the kernels. Shrimp lumpia ($17) are just what’s expected, a single shrimp stuffed inside each deep-fried Philippine spring roll and smeared with banana ketchup, while curry pork ribs come on the bone swaddled in a dark and sticky curry sauce.
Noodles are another option, and the khao soy gai soup ($29) is the best in town. As usual, this creamy Chiang Mai potage comes with egg noodles submerged in a thick curry broth with a cloud of deep fried micro-noodles on top. In this version, not only are the pieces of chicken crisp, but a saucer of chile oil comes alongside. Dump it all in. The drunken noodles with beef are nothing special, about what you’d expect at a local Thai carryout, while the crab fried rice ($32) was proved to be a comically small serving the time I tried it.
Is Nemesis as good as Antidote? I’d say so, especially if you go with a crowd that’s enthusiastic about trying an array of dishes. And the skate, river prawns, and khao soi are among the tastiest dishes found in the Flatiron today.