It’s common enough to see friends forsake their Manhattan digs, only to reappear in Brooklyn or Queens—but a restaurant? But that was the case not long ago with Sentosa, Manhattan’s best Malaysian joint. It pulled up stakes from the corner of Allen and Canal, resurfacing without fanfare last year in Flushing, one in a glittering line of new restaurants along Prince Street that includes Spicy & Tasty, King 5 Noodle, and assorted bubble tea parlors. While the original Sentosa was often sadly empty, the new place boasts queues that creep out the door and down the block. Decorated with beaten-metal folkloric figurines, the bilevel premises are glitzy and way more comfortable than the former Loisaida hovel.
The compulsory starter remains the breathtaking roti canai ($2.50), a saucer of creamy chicken curry served with a flatbread—but oh! what a flatbread. Oily and flaky, concocted on the spot (in the old place you could actually see them cooking it), the bread arrives crumpled like a pocket handkerchief. Uncommon dexterity is required to dip it in the curry, tear off a morsel of chicken or potato, then ferry it back to your mouth. Add a stuffing of egg and onion to the bread, and the result is roti telus ($3.50)—not sure it’s worth the extra buck. Both starters are a tip of the hat to the Indian roots of Malaysian cooking. Another shareable starter is achat, a salad of pickled veggies colored brilliant orange via a heavy hand with the turmeric. It comes strewn with sesame seeds and doused with fiery vinegar. Add shrimp fritters, sprouts, boiled eggs, and fried tofu, and you’ve got pasembur ($8), a huge repast masquerading as a salad.
The larger kitchen has made possible a menu twice the original length, now composed of a bewildering 197 dishes—not counting desserts and beverages. On the positive side, there’s an expanded roster of inky sautéed noodles, tamarind-laced soups, and generously proportioned rice dishes. Less appealingly, Thai and cloying Cantonese American stuff have been added to the menu. In general, they’re to be avoided. A case in point is volcano spare ribs—I leave to your imagination what this sugary mess entails.
On the upper end of the menu, fish, lobster, and crab are presented with a choice of 16 sauces. Luckily, your cheerful server will steer you toward some of the better combos. My favorite sauce is the one known as nonya (“grandma”), named after the Malaysian subculture created by Chinese immigrants who arrived on the Malay peninsula centuries ago, deftly blending international culinary influences and deploying unusual ingredients like candlenuts, screw pine leaves, and leprous lime. For around $22, you get a whole sea bass bobbing in a bubbling red sauce flavored with mango, ginger, and green chiles. It’s incredibly satisfying, but you’ll find it difficult to debone the fish as it flounders in the boiling sauce. Snuff out the chafing dish flame immediately or risk scalding fingers and tongue!
The menu is long on vegetables, mostly dressed with the funky prawn paste belacan (“bell-ah-chan”). Okra, known poetically as “lady’s fingers,” arrives not only smeared with belacan but dotted with fresh shrimp. Cooked so that the pods remain intact, the dish is a memorable tour de force. Mixing flavors both skanky and fresh, it tastes like a bridge between life and death.