Dodge the Sake Bombs at Laut

A fine Malaysian joint hides near Union Square

Laut's small dining room, just off Union Square, looks like a million other workaday Thai joints—wooden tables and chairs, walls painted with idyllic scenes of Southeast Asian temples. But the place's oddities assert themselves immediately.

For one thing, there's a sushi counter in the back. For another, the sound system's bass speaker gets more of a workout than you might expect. The other night, Usher was panting loudly about getting low, and the friend whom I'd enlisted for dinner was looking increasingly skeptical about his decision to come along. He glanced at the menu, which includes not only rainbow rolls and pad Thai, but also, God help us, tuna tartare and sake bombs. The first thing he said is not printable because it would offend both the developmentally disabled and anyone attached to the term "pan-Asian." Then he said he felt like we were at a strip club, with none of the usual benefits. I relate all of this so you'll not lose heart if Laut at first annoys you. It's actually a very fine Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a horrible pan-Asian joint.

The restaurant's compendious menu offers Indonesian, sushi, Thai, and Malaysian dishes. Usually, that's not a good sign—the mark of a restaurant that glops the same sugary sauce on everything, a place that caters to people who think of Asian food as one undifferentiated mass of sushi and noodles. But Laut's owners are a Malaysian couple, and the restaurant offers Malaysian dishes that range from good to excellent and boast the incredible complexity and depth of flavor that defines food from that part of the world.

Belacan provides much of that depth, giving dishes a distinctive umami backbone. The ingredient (called "trassi" in Indonesia) is made from very small raw shrimp, which are fermented in clay jars until they break down, then are ground into a smooth paste and dried in the sun. The mixture gets shaped into blocks or rounds and sun-dried again, before being ready to use. Uncooked belacan doesn't smell great, but once it's cooked, it mellows out into a briny savor—deep, dark, and wide. If you aren't Southeast Asian yourself, you may want to assure your server that you like Malaysian-style food, so that the kitchen won't skimp on the belacan or the chilies. And don't forget to ask for a small bowl of belacan sambal—a brick-red, explosively flavorful mix of chile paste and the fermented shrimp that's used as condiment.

Laksa is sometimes called the national dish of Malaysia. The noodle soup comes in myriad styles, but two iconic versions are curry laksa, popular in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and asam laksa, from Penang. These noodle soup cousins couldn't be more different, but Laut nails both. The former is a rich coconut-based soup, creamy orange in color, the surface stippled with chile oil, hiding a generous pile of yellow egg noodles underneath. One sip, and you'll notice how deliciously the spice base of chilies, lemongrass, belacan, and shallots balance the sweetness of the coconut. Fish for the cubes of fried tofu that sponge up the broth, along with shrimp and half of a boiled egg. While the curry laksa pulls you in with full, sweet spice, assam laksa knocks you over the head with its sour brininess. The broth is made by simmering anchovies with tamarind until the liquid turns muddy with tiny bits of fish, and becomes mouth-wateringly tart. Laut serves that brew with chewy laifun rice noodles and a sprightly garnish of Vietnamese mint, cucumber, red onion, and julienned pineapple.

Also in the noodle soup category, prawn mee is a worthy bowl to order, although it doesn't have the complexity of the two laksas. Egg noodles, water spinach, fried shallots, and shrimp bob in a broth the color of terracotta, which tastes of chilies and belacan's low-pitched funk.

Laut has a long list of appetizers and snacks, many of which are run-of-the-mill pan-Asian stuff like shumai and "Thai buffalo wings." Instead, look under the entrée header for the best side dish: kang kong (water spinach), slicked with a sludge of belacan and chilies. You'd think all those strong flavors—bitter greens, salty/fishy/hot seasoning—would clash, but they're actually delicious and invigorating together. We also particularly liked the appetizer of fried fish cakes, zested with kaffir lime, and the sotong goreng, fried squid dusted with chile. And then there's the classic northern Malaysian-Indian dish called pasembur (similar concoctions are known as rojak elsewhere in the region)—a crazy quilt of a tossed salad, including crisp shrimp fritters, jicama, sprouts, and boiled egg. The dressing, which is meant to be nutty and thick, is a bit too watery and wan here.

Some standards are only as good as your average Chinatown Malaysian spot. Don't expect a revelatory roti canai, the croissant-like flatbread served with curry dipping sauce, or nasi lemak, coconut rice surrounded by sides like tiny fried anchovies and chicken curry. Char kueh teow, the classic fried broad noodle dish, has that smoky-chewy goodness from being cooked in a properly hot wok, but you really need to spoon on the sambal belacan for oomph.

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