Well-known chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly into making traditional-style street food. There’s Southern Italian market dishes at John McDonald’s high-end Soho spot Sessanta; Marcus Samuelsson’s Streetbird Rotisserie; and now Simpson Wong, owner of beloved West Village Southeast Asian spot Cafe Asean, throws his hat into the ring with his latest Singaporean-hawker food eatery, Chomp Chomp (7 Cornelia Street; 212-929-2888).
With whitewashed brick walls adorned with backlit antique screens, vintage metal and wood schoolhouse chairs and stools, and different washes of rustic timber planks lining the floor and bar, Chomp Chomp feels like high-end version of an Asian food hall. On a recent Thursday night, the dimly lit space was abuzz with guests sipping drinks at the bar and passing around plates in the open dining room.
The menu includes around a half-dozen snacks like murtabak ($9) roti filled with minced beef or vegetables and a side of vegetarian curry dip. Popiah ($8), are light and fresh Singaporean-style spring rolls with shrimp, jicama, snow peas, and lettuce, rolled in a crepe-like wrapper with homemade chile paste drizzled atop. Hah zheung gai ($10), shrimp-paste-marinated chicken wings (and wing tips) are crisp and flavorful, topped with Chinese celery, garlic, and chiles.
While the food here is intended for sharing, it’s not all small plates. As you’d find in a hawker hall, there’s a wide array of traditional dishes incorporating the different cultural influences of the cuisine. It’s not overly spicy; however, like in Singapore, numerous forms of dried and fresh chiles are used. Spices in South and East Asia are ubiquitous, and noodles were brought to the nation by way of China — they’re both in the fried hokkien mee ($15), stir-fried egg noodles with head-on shrimp, bay scallops, squid, and Chinese greens (yu choy) in a dense seafood broth.
Curry mee or curry laksa ($14) blends Chinese and Malay with noodles, seafood, and tofu puffs in a spicy coconut broth. Asam fish ($14) melds Malay and Indian with hake, okra, and tomatoes cooked in a heavily spiced tamarind-coconut sauce. Lamb rendang is Wong’s personal take on the traditional Indonesian beef rendang, a stand-by in the food halls of his homeland. It’s slow-cooked in a mix of spices like cardamom, anise, clovers, coriander seeds, shallots, and lime, ground in-house and rounded out with fresh cilantro, scallions, Chinese celery, and pickles. For sides, there’s coconut rice ($2.50) cooked in coconut milk with chile, shallot, chile shrimp paste, and tamarind. Kangkung belacan ($8) is morning glory stir-fried with belacan sauce (spicy shrimp paste) in a hot wok.
The concept and dishes themselves were inspired by Wong’s childhood in Singapore. There are no high-end ingredients like lobster or large shrimp, yet the food is flavorful and inexpensive. Wong says that was his main goal. “Hawker centers are where everyone goes to eat in Singapore and Asia, even when you go out for a celebration,” he says. “I was the seventh of eight kids. Can you imagine bringing out eight kids and grandparents? If you go for a sit-down dinner, it’s going to cost a lot of money.”
A concise selection of beer (Tiger, $6), wine ($9 to $15 a glass, $35 to $58 a bottle), tea ($4), and signature cocktails are available. Drinks include a “Singapore Fling” with Farmer’s gin and Ribena ($12), the Sentosa margarita with rum and calamansi ($12), and a tamarind punch, a mix of jalapeno-infused vodka, tamarind juice, and palm syrup.
For the past three years, Wong has been talking to investors and writing down recipes for his favorite home dishes. He finally decided to give it a go on his own, opening the doors about a month ago. While there are numerous restaurants offering Southeast Asian fusion with some Singaporean dishes on the menu, Chomp Chomp is the only purely Singaporean eatery in NYC. Wong is excited to share a taste of his life and culture with the city. “I grew up eating hawker food,” he says. “When I wanted to open a restaurant, I wanted to go to my roots, the food I crave every day. This is my comfort food.”
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