There are a handful of Malaysian restaurants (plus at least one cart) in New York City, but none present the level of authenticity Camie Lai means to offer at Rasa (25 West 8th Street), the restaurant she just opened in Greenwich Village.
Lai has lived in the States for 30 years, and she became fixated on bringing the tastes of her childhood to her new home after she couldn’t find them anywhere, even in the restaurants that purported to be Malaysian. “We would find a lot of watered down dishes,” explains Bibi Singh, her friend and associate who also hails from that part of the world. “There were Singaporean noodles that don’t exist in out part of the world.”
The restaurateur worked at another Malaysian restaurant, Penang, for many years before opening Laut with a business partner. When that partner’s family issues forced the duo to sell the restaurant, Lai began exploring opening something new. “The restaurant was my baby, my life,” she says. “I thought, maybe I should have another one of my very own.”
She enlisted her brother, Tommy, to helm the burners — and he comes with serious chops. Tommy was the first Malaysian chef to earn a Michelin star, garnered on the strengths of dishes like beef rendang and assam pedas, a spicy sour soup made with a chili-laced tamarind base. He’ll offer those dishes at Rasa along with char kueh teow — wide stir-fried noodles with shrimp paste and bean sprouts — and nasi lemak, a dish Lai says they could eat for “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” that combines curry chicken, hard boiled egg, peanuts, and anchovies over aromatic coconut rice.
The ingredients, says Lai, have to be imported from Malaysia because they’re impossible to find here. “The idea is to have these authentic flavors that they go back home for,” says Singh. “They’re going into Malaysian kitchens and bringing those spices and recipes back. They’re using leaves they didn’t know what to call in English.”
Rasa is also serving a sushi menu in addition to its regular list, although this isn’t Japanese fish over rice — rather, the counter is incorporating Malaysian flavors into sushi-like bites, serving up rolls stuffed with satay chicken or drizzled with sambal.
The food pairs to a drinks list that will grow to include more Japanese whiskey, which Singh says pairs brilliantly with Malaysian food, as well as drinks the Lais remember from home, like hot tamarind cider (which can be spiked with cognac), a coconut toddy, and warm ginger-laced Coca Cola, which is also a stomach remedy.
And while Lai is focusing on food common in Malaysian home kitchens, her restaurant is befitting of NYC’s downtown — the sleek room, backed by a sushi counter, is lit softly and lined with dark booths.
Rasa is still in soft opening mode; it makes its official debut this week.