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When the West Village’s Fatty Crab debuted in 2005, it presented the brash flavors of Malaysia in a rollicking greasy-spoon setting, and trying to negotiate messy dishes like chili crab resulted in fiery fluids flying everywhere. Somewhat belatedly, the East Village has finally responded with a more subtle and circumspect take on the cuisine, via the archipelago’s formerly British—but still very Brit—city-state of Singapore.
Located on an obscure block of East 13th Street behind a post office substation, possibly allowing you to watch your mail being unloaded as you eat, Masak affects a rustic Victorian decor. This includes distressed tongue-and-groove wainscoting, teal blue brocaded wallpaper, wooden lattices hanging from the ceiling interspersed with dim bare bulbs, deacon’s benches along the tables instead of banquettes, steam pipes nautically wrapped in rope, and ancient cabinetry fitted here and there under the bar and in the corners. It feels like you’re in a second-class steamer cabin in Lord Jim.
But instead of making diners dodge crab-shell fragments like at Fatty Crab, Masak delivers the primmer and more approachable chili crab dip ($11). This red reservoir of mellow flavor is shot with lump crabmeat—so no more wrestling crustaceans with your bare hands. It comes accompanied by deep-fried breads that taste like doughnuts, dubbed mantou. You will immediately tear apart the four provided, with the mini-loaves serving as both dipping devices and early dessert. Then you’ll need another four ($2) to properly sop the delectable dip, which isn’t nearly as spicy as you might have feared.
Formerly of Aquavit, Tasting Room, and Alias, chef-owner Larry Reutens is watching out for your tongue. While the crab dip is only slightly spicy, the beet salad ($9) is mild, engagingly sprinkled with fried shallots, coconut, and cashews, showing off a root that would cause most Singaporeans to scratch their heads (though they might counter by throwing a purple yam at you). More traditionally Malaysian is a bowl of clams cooked with black pepper, reminding us of the proximity of the peninsula to ancient spice routes. Before chiles arrived from South America in the 16th century, peppercorns were the only vector of hotness available to the region’s cooks.
Some of the best dishes are bastardized (or maybe I should say bistro-ized) versions of standard Malaysian fare. Devil chicken ($23) turns out to be a crunchy-skinned half-bird lolling in a giant schmear of black sauce thickened with palm-sugar syrup. This setup allows you to dip the bird or not as you plow through the entrée. The fingerlings on the side are twice cooked and doubly delightful, and the belacan-laced kale provides a salty and fishy counterpoint. This being fundamentally an East Village bistro, there’s a burger, too, furnished with ketjap—the Indonesian forerunner of ketchup—and some turmeric-soaked pickles.
But while a chili-roasted pork chop is wonderful in its thickness and span, with a sauce miring sautéed onions and pea shoots in a midnight gravy, the Spanish mackerel proves disappointing. Even though the strong taste of the fish is perfectly rendered by careful grilling, the advertised sambal next to it is interpreted as a yawn-worthy coleslaw. Usually, it’s an incendiary relish. Spice it up, dude, or we might as well be eating Japanese! Much better—and truly compelling—is an oddball starter of spice-coated chicken hearts. As a bonus, the dozen or so avian pumps arrive on a bed of nicely dressed salad interspersed with dates that you might comically mistake for . . . more chicken hearts.
Masak started out six months ago with a limited menu, and that’s how most publications reported on it. Perhaps as a result, the place hasn’t gotten much traction and sits half-empty most evenings. But that’s not the only problem. The biggest difficulty is the name. When a friend recommended the place, I first thought she said Masa, referring to the wildly expensive sushi parlor at Columbus Circle. Next, I thought she meant Mas, the Greenwich Village wood-oven “farmhouse.” Only after she spelled it out, quite literally, did I realize it was a unique place unto itself.
This sleeper is definitely worth visiting, and don’t miss the desserts or the cocktails, either. The former run to crumbly coarse-textured shortbreads, black-sesame ice cream, tiny fruit dumplings, and a scrumptious cakelet made with condensed milk, a tropical staple. The cocktails are way strong. The one you should beeline for is the Singapore Sling ($11). Invented at Raffles Hotel around 1915, it offers the foamy combo of gin, colorful liqueurs, and pineapple juice. Just the thing for a steamy, tropical night in the East Village.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.