Gut Instinct: Go On, Make My Malay

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


IT’S A TORRID Upper West Side Tuesday night, and shoppers are bustling to Fairway and Zabar’s, stocking up on cheese, veggies and coronary-causing kosher meat. I haven’t trekked here for brisket. Instead, I’m outside of Fatty Crab (2170 Broadway, betw. W. 76th & W. 77th Sts., www.fattycrab.com), a Malaysian-inspired restaurant, awaiting Singapore gourmand K.F. Seetoh. We’re scheduled to meet at 7:15, but he’s running late. This gives me time to unspool his tale.

Over the last 15 years, the exphotographer has become one of the biggest culinary cheerleaders of Singapore, a 250-square-mile city-state located off the Malay Peninsula’s southern tip. Influenced by Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cooking traditions, Singaporean cuisine is a Southeast Asian melting pot. Armies of hawkers and restaurants dole out noodle stir-fries, curries containing fish heads and crabs swaddled in incendiary chili sauce.

Fifty years ago, 20,000-plus street carts roamed Singapore. They were a delicious nuisance, but "the government couldn’t get rid of them because they fed the nation," Seetoh, 48, says. "Street food flavors are in our DNA." Instead, the hawkers were relocated inside football field-size food halls that house 150 to 200 vendors—street food with a governmentapproved stamp. These days, there’s no shortage of superb food in Singapore. Finding it? That was the rub. To remedy that, Seetoh started the Makansutra, a guidebook organized by dishes rated by chopsticks, not stars. Tonight, Seetoh and I are touring several Malaysian eateries. Would any earn his coveted threechopsticks rating, aka "die die must try"?

Around 7:45, Seetoh arrives wearing a flowered short-sleeve shirt. He snaps pictures of Fatty Crab, then shakes my hand. "Let’s get this party started," he says. We take to a corner booth. Menus are delivered. I defer the ordering to Seeoth. "We’ll start with the classics," he says. "Let’s see how the food matches up."

First up is wonton mee, a tangle of thin, crispy yellow noodles awash in chicken broth alongside shrimp-and-pork wontons. He takes a pic, the first of dozens tonight. "I’m a multisensory storyteller. I talk about food through stories in a way that connects to people," says Seetoh. He samples. "I don’t mind that the chef used crispy noodles, but a good crispy noodle should be like eating potato chips," he says. "And the broth is a bit salty—Malaysia looks bad here," he says.

Roasted chicken wings fare better.

They’re crunchy and sticky, redolent of chili and fennel, but "they’re cooked so much better in Singapore," he says, disappointed. He’s mystified by nasi lemak, a chicken curry plated with coconut rice and a slow-poached egg. The dish is comforting, he says, "but there’s usually a hard-boiled egg. And the curry is too polite, too Jewish." By contrast, the lamb rendang is a cauldron of gamey fire paired with a fat, greasy roti—essentially, a pancake. "The roti should be crispier and thinner," he opines. He’s equally horrified by the chili crab, a Dungeness half-submerged in Hades-hued liquid. The sauce is too sweet, too vinegary, he says, and "they shouldn’t leave all this gunk in here." He points to the viscera, which recalls sinus discharge. Nonetheless, Seetoh appreciate the crab’s freshness, as well as the whole grilled fish cooked in chili-ginger sauce. "It’s so fresh," he said, chopsticking up buttery, snow-white flesh. We reduce it to its skeleton, then cab it to Chinatown’s long-running Nyonya (199 Grand St., betw. Mott & Mulberry Sts., 212-334-3669).

"My friends told me not to go here," Seetoh confides. "They recommended Taste Good, in Elmhurst." Yet Seetoh can’t pass judgment till the food passes his lips. We sit and sip tea. Again, I allow Seetoh to order. Again, we request enough food to feed an orphanage. Again, disappointment. "This is too chewy and not very fluffy," he says of the roti canai paired with curry. He deems the fresh shrimp-and-turnip popiah spring rolls flavorless, lackluster. Seetoh favors the pasembur’s crunchy shrimp fritters, but "the sauce is too sweet." The wonton mee’s soft noodles are cooked "just right," though the wontons are one note: "A good wonton should have crunch, with jicama," he says. He pushes the dish aside. "This gets my vote," he says, tearing into the poached Hainanese chicken served atop rice intensified with chicken stock. He snags a second piece.

I do not. I’m full, ready for bed and a stomach pump. Not Seetoh. He’s off to the Ace Hotel’s The Breslin to dine on steak and swine. And tomorrow, he’s headed to Peter Luger for a proper porterhouse—no more Malaysian food. "When I come to the United States, I crave a good hamburger or steak," he says. 

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE MALAYSIAN GRUB IN NYC? TELL ME AT JBERNSTEIN@NYPRESS.COM.

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