Kale, chicken wings, deviled eggs. Yes, we’re definitely in Brooklyn. But the sautéed kale is tossed with toasted coconut. The chicken wings? Glazed in chile, garlic, and palm sugar. And the deviled eggs — dosed with sourness and spice from chiles and kaffir lime.
Tucked away from Greenpoint’s main thoroughfare along Manhattan Avenue and steps from McGolrick Park, Selamat Pagi (152 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-701-4333) bills itself as a Balinese restaurant. It’s not. Not entirely, anyway. Those deviled eggs riff on telur balado, a broader Indonesian dish of deep-fried hard-boiled eggs covered in sambal, a pickled chile condiment with as many variations as Mexican salsa. The deviled rendition is nicely rich and bright with citrus. (But why, oh why, is it served as a trio? That’s not how halves work! Who ate the other half?) A side of kale also recalls a traditional dish, collard greens stewed with coconut milk. But as with the eggs, the Americanization of the plate nearly winds up undermining its effect, threatening to make it come off as Southeast Asian food whitewashed by impassioned Anglos. Which is too bad, because while they may not boast the street-food cred of Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker, there’s a tangible sincerity at play here.
Selamat Pagi — the name translates to “good morning” in Indonesian — is the brainchild of brothers Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen, the enterprising, polished team behind the popular outfit Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream. Along with Ben’s wife, Laura O’Neill, they converted the front room of their production facility into this quaint, stark beacon of exotic flavors. (Bali is a popular destination for vacationing Australians, and O’Neill, who is Melbourne-born, fell under its spell.)
Ex-Otto chef Sophia Loch had the helm at the outset almost two years ago; now Shanghai-trained Vinh Nguyen, late of Williamsburg’s Café Colette, commands the kitchen. Much of the menu remains the same, but Nguyen spreads his wings with items like a smoked-squid salad special that made my table sit up and take notice. Sambal matah, a raw, sharp Balinese mash of shallots, lemongrass, shrimp paste, and chiles, spiced the squid, which mingled with slivers of pickled chayote squash in a dressing of basil and fish sauce. The plate was Michael Bay-explosive, with pops of sour, sweet, and tingling spice assaulting the charred flesh.
You can also start your meal with small plates, including a papaya salad, mussels, and those chile-glazed wings. A daily-changing campur, the kindred spirit to the Indian assortment known as thali, is available, offering a taste of several different appetizers, like juicy coconut meatballs and a minced-fish-and-shrimp cake buzzing with kaffir lime and tamarind. The kitchen also offers a side of shrimp chips with three sambals: beet, tomato, and the aforementioned matah. It’s an addictive snack whose amped flavors beg for a beverage pairing. The space, done up in blond wood and ceilinged with pressed tin, has just enough room for a nine-seat bar — no hard liquor, but a selection of domestic and Euro wines and ciders, plus bottled beers that likewise skew West (though suds from Japan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are represented). I couldn’t stop sipping on my turmeric tonic, an herbaceous mix of ginger, lemon, honey, and cayenne pepper that borders on juice-cleanse territory but is rescued by an alluring astringency.
Entrées are given the moniker “Essentials” — an accurate assessment, even if Nguyen’s Balinese-style fried chicken, ayam bumbu, could use stronger spicing and more than just a spoonful of tomato sambal. Despite lacking flavor, the bird is fried perfectly. Curries are top-notch; the beef rendang in particular falls apart and smacks of chiles, coconut milk, and ginger. A market catch — crisp tenders of pollock, the night we tried it — makes its way into a lighter, coconut milk-based sauce flavored with turmeric and lemongrass, a fine complement for a mild fish. Tamarind glaze coats fried cubes of tempeh. Dusted with sesame seeds, the mock meat looks like Chinese takeout but tastes infinitely better, betraying a gentle sweet-and-sourness.
For dessert there’s ice cream, of course, though no specialty flavors unique to the restaurant. You can, however, drop the scoop of your choice into a glass of Left Hand Brewing’s Milk Stout Nitro for a foamy, boozy float. Other options include a wobbly coconut crème brûlée and a chocolate ganache tart with fresh berries. Our favorite baked treat was a special: kaffir lime-curd cake, which tempered the floral citrus with velvety buttercream frosting and berry compote.
Reflective of Ms. O’Neill’s affinity for Bali, Selamat Pagi is a love letter written in childlike cursive, promising coconut-milk kisses and chile-pepper spankings. It’s also far removed from its brethren in Queens, where a number of the city’s Indonesian restaurants reside, and that breathing room graciously allows for a certain artistic license. I’d encourage chef Nguyen to aggressively push that envelope.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 2, 2014