During the early days of the pandemic, Sahlil Mehta, who along with wife Stacey Mehta own and operate the Michelin-starred Malaysian spot Laut and its nearby sister restaurant, the more street-food-focused Laut Singapura, got worried.
"We did not know what was going to happen to our spaces downtown," Mehta told Gothamist earlier this week. Located in the Gramercy/Union Square area, both spots relied heavily on office workers to pack the dining rooms each night. So to kind of hedge their bets, the Mehtas looked to open a new venture, but in a different, more residential neighborhood.
"We noticed that on the Upper West Side people actually stayed in the city," said Mehta. "They didn't leave, and we saw that a lot of the restaurants up here continued to do well, even with just takeout and delivery. The local people actually supported the restaurants up here a lot more than downtown. So we signed the lease here at the peak of the pandemic, and Wau was born."
The emphasis at Wau is on comfort food, and the menu is filled with rich, big-flavored dishes, both what Mehta calls "back-to-roots" Malaysian fare as well as rice- and noodle-based items you might find at hawker stalls throughout the region. My companion and I feasted on a half dozen dishes the other night, and everything was delicious.
There's a lot of good pan-Asian stuff among the appetizers, including one of Wau's several vegan options, a pile of moderately-battered, heavily-seasoned Salt and Pepper Young Coconut, the remarkably tender fruit doing a nice job of standing in for the usual seafood. The Crispy Lotus Root is indeed extremely crisp, and drenched in a lively orange sauce that Mehta likens to a Thai tom yum. Both of these make for great table shares.
Even better were the Savory Donuts, with their dense mixture of minced chicken and shrimp, a crackling oatmeal crust, and plenty of chili-driven heat lurking within. Other appealing options up here include the vegan Larb Fries, the Honey Chili Sambal Chicken Wings, the Wontons in Chili Oil, and the Murtabek, which is described as a Malaysia-Indian dish involving a chicken- and egg-stuffed pancake.
You'll definitely want to spend some time in Wau's Hawker Noodle section. My favorite dish of the night was probably the Singapore-style Char Kway Teow, a bowl of wide, flat rice noodles studded with seafood and sticky with a dark soy sauce. You can also get this dish with chicken or tofu, but either way, this is supreme comfort food. Pad See Ew, Singapore Laska, Bangkok-style Pad Thai, and Mamak Mee Goreng, an Indian Muslim egg noodle concoction, are also available to make you feel full and happy.
Among the so-called Legendary Rice Dishes are Nasi Meak, Pineapple Fried Rice, and, our order, a mound of wonderful Nasi Goreng, which is fried rice spiced with things like ground shrimp paste, a sweet soy sauce called kicap mantis, tamarind, garlic, and chili. We had ours with chicken, and, adding to the fun, it arrived with a runny egg on top.
A hodgepodge of entree-like items can be found under the heading Signature Dishes, such as Singapore Black Pepper Prawns, stir-fried Farmers Krapow Basil, and Rendang Beef, which featured chunks of tender meat in a thick red curry. There are also several soups, salads, and sides on the menu, and three desserts, all of which we were too stuffed to try, though next time I'm getting that Balinese Black Rice Pudding.
There's some semi-outdoor seating jutting out onto the sidewalk, and inside you'll find a couple of plush banquettes, a few two-tops, and a big wooden bar to which you can sidle up for all sorts of alcoholic delights, including eight "signature" cocktails. My companion made quick work of her boozy Juicy Fruit, which is flavored with jackfruit—she called it "like candy and Aperol, in a good way."
As far as the name goes, Wau comes from the wau bulan moon-kites which sway in the breeze over the outdoor tables. More to the point, as Mehta says, "They are flown in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, and that's where the inspiration for the food here comes from. The idea of this space is to lift your spirits high, and get you high with our spirits. Plus, I just want you to come in and say "wow."
Wau is located at 434 Amsterdam Avenue, at the corner of 81st Street, and is currently open for lunch, brunch, and dinner, on Monday through Friday from noon to 3:30 p.m, and then again from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; on Saturday from noon to 10:30 p.m.; and on Sunday from noon to 9:30 p.m. (917-261-5926; waunyc.com)