As residents of the world’s culinary epicenter (a sentiment shared by modernist cooking pioneer Ferran Adrià, no less), New York diners have unparalleled access to global cuisines, from Mongolian to Moldovan and most everything in between. It’s a fact that has both encouraged and stymied Salil and Stacey Mehta, who opened Pasar Malam (208 Grand Street, Brooklyn) in Williamsburg this past July. Inspired by the bounty of Malaysia’s night markets (the restaurant’s name translates to “night market” in Malay), the Mehtas set out to capture that nation’s multicultural mishmash of breathtaking spices and fermented flavors — an amalgam of Chinese, Indian, British, and indigenous cuisines. “When you talk about pad Thai, everyone knows what that is. But when it comes to things like fish-head curry and egg-jam toast, people are reluctant. We had to reinvent what we were doing,” Salil Mehta says.
That’s the case with Pasar Malam’s Singapore chile crab. Along the Malay Peninsula, Sri Lankan mud crabs are favored for their heft and musky, sweet flavor. “They’re impossible to find over here,” Mehta laments. Fatty Crab, which popularized the dish in New York, uses Dungeness crabs for its version. Pasar Malam takes another tack entirely, going with soft-shells, battered and fried crisp. This simple switch lends the plate inimitable finesse, allowing one to devour the crab whole, leaving a moat of thick, sweet and spicy pepper sauce to mop up with an accompanying pair of puffy Chinese mantou buns, which you can get steamed or fried golden brown. If, like us, you’re left with extra sauce, the kitchen will happily provide more starch for dipping.
Start your meal with your choice of eight varieties of roti, griddle-fried flatbread that’s cooked in ghee, the clarified butter that gives the Indian staple its distinct aroma. Mehta sees the roti as the backbone of his menu — a view bolstered by the large backlit sign outlining the various choices that hangs over the restaurant’s semi-open kitchen. The end product justifies its signature status. Singaporean roti prata, thicker and chewier than the standard Malaysian roti canai, is a top choice. Either comes with a teacupful of thin and powerful curry, which swirls with chile oil, lava-lamp-style, after each dip. Murtabak pairs the pancake with curried ground beef. Mehta even makes a few dessert roti, including a s’more and a “Roti Elvis,” stuffed with — what else? — peanut butter and bananas.
The dining room, decorated with a mélange of plain signs bearing the names of specific dishes juxtaposed with beguiling, colorful murals, evinces a playful aesthetic with its faux-outhouse bathrooms and, this month, aggressive Halloween decorations. But the Mehtas couldn’t be more committed to delivering a serious experience on the plate.
“Sourcing” often gets bandied about when discussing farm-to-table restaurants. Here the chef seeks out tough-to-find ingredients like ginger flowers and fresh kaffir lime leaves so he can serve dishes that are “as close to home as possible.” Somehow I hadn’t envisioned that statement translating to fruit salad, but the rojak nearly defies categorization. Chunks of green mango, pineapple, jicama, cucumber, and apple bathe in a shrimp-paste dressing the color of crude oil. Mixed with crunchy Chinese crullers (youtiao), peanuts, sesame seeds, and the aforementioned ginger flowers, it’s sweet and vibrant yet unfathomably deep with fermented funk.
Along with the chile crab, asam laksa also makes the trip from the Mehtas’ sister restaurant, Laut, which they took over in 2010 (eventually garnering and then losing a Michelin star). The thick Malaysian soup builds on a sour base of tamarind and lemongrass, sideswiped by pungent sardines, Vietnamese mint, and shrimp paste. As bracing as it is comforting, a single bowl perfumes both the table it lands on and adjacent diners to boot. And while both Laut’s and Pasar Malam’s extensive menus debuted with a large Thai and Indonesian influence, Mehta’s determination to focus his offerings along an even narrower Malaysian vein deserves ovation. That said, I will take to change.org posthaste if he ever stops serving satay babi, meltingly tender grilled pork skewers festooned with pineapple relish. Likewise his Hainanese chicken over rice, prepared atypically with heavily rendered, crisp skin and served still on the bone; or mee goreng, stir-fried noodles adorned with shrimp fritters and chile sauce and presented in a Russian doll–like teapot that comes apart in segments to reveal the ingredients within. The sheer number of dishes available can confound.
Along a populated stretch of Grand Street, Pasar Malam’s gold façade sticks out in the best way possible, though the place stays quiet except on weekend nights. Recently, Mehta says, he has felt pressured to “Brooklyn-ize” certain dishes: “A regular shrimp toast isn’t enough to entice diners here, so we add bacon to it.” He also transforms the Hainanese chicken into arancini. Both dishes appear on a new bar menu, available to pair with low-alcohol cocktails featuring cheeky mixers like Mad Dog 20/20 and a Southeast Asian sports drink called 100 Plus, imbuing Malaysia with just a bit of Brooklyn swagger. The move has paid off, and the Mehtas manage to walk that wonderful tightrope between tradition and innovation. Raise your “Walky Talkies” — chile-spiced fried chicken feet — and salute Pasar Malam: the city’s best Malaysian restaurant.