The city's sparsely populated Malaysian culinary scene recently welcomed a new player in Rasa, a no-frills eatery on West 8th Street that opened at the end of last year. It's helmed by Chef Tommy Lai—who helped win fellow Malaysian restaurant Laut a Michelin star as chef—and his sister Camie, Malaysian ex-pats who grew up in Rasa, a small village north of the nation's capital. With Thai and Vietnamese restaurants dominating the city's Southeast Asian representation, the duo intend to spotlight their native country's flavorful and unique cuisine.
Don't be distracted by the Japanese and Thai dishes included on the menu; if you're seeking the true Malay experience, save the sushi and Pad Thai for another trip. Start with the Roti Canai ($6), a flaky and tender flat bread served with curried potato. The buttery, rich roti is the most authentic version in NYC according to my dining partner, Malaysian-born cook and sambal-maker Auria Abraham. The Satay Chicken Bites ($8) are also a standout starter, with juicy morsels of meat expertly fried and smothered in a thick peanut sauce.
On a frigid night like the one when we visited for a press preview, the Yong Tau Foo Curry Mee ($13) will take the chill right out and fill your belly with warm, spicy broth. Below the soup's surface you'll find two kinds of noodles—toothsome egg and thin rice—plus jalapenos, mushrooms and hunks of tofu stuffed with a shrimp and seafood paste. I was pleased with the deeply flavorful but light broth made with lemongrass, ginger, curry leaf, coconut milk and candle nuts, a super fatty nut similar to Macadamia, which are pulverized and added as a natural thickener. This steaming pot of soup is enough to break me from my ramen addiction. If they don't automatically serve it, ask for a dish of fiery sambal to add a kick to your noodles.
Any Malaysian restaurant worth its salt will offer beef rendang, a savory meat dish common to special occasions in its native country. In its traditional preparation, rendang takes many hours of cooking to reduce chunks of beef into tender, fall-apart morsels. Rasa's version uses sliced beef instead, breaking with tradition, so purists might not find the texture to their liking. But the flavors of lemon grass and coconut shine through, giving the beef an almost sweet character that's very pleasing when eaten with accompanying coconut rice.
As a lover of stir-fried noodles I had high hopes for the Char Kueh Teow, composed of broad noodles, bean sprouts, egg and, in our case, shrimp. I love the heartiness of the noodles but the overwhelming salt flavor made it difficult to eat, even when sprinkled with the vinegary chili sauce. I'd sooner order another bowl of curry soup or try the Assam Laksa, a sour and tangy noodle soup make from mackerel bones and tamarind.
25 West 8th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, (212) 253 9888; rasanyc.com