An Asian Fusion Worth Its Chili

With a unique cuisine, good prices, and a welcoming ambience, Union Square’s Laut is a smart place to reserve a table in advance for weekend dinners. | LAUTNYC.COM

With a unique cuisine, good prices, and a welcoming ambience, Union Square’s Laut is a smart place to reserve a table in advance for weekend dinners. | LAUTNYC.COM

As it came to our table, the tiny bowl of curry dip was preceded by its smell — a mix of coconut, warm spices like cinnamon, and a small amount of chili that literally turned my head, like a cartoon character following the aroma of pie. The curry dip accompanied our appetizer of roti canai ($7.50), a Malaysian bread that looked like a South Asian dosa but was softer and doughier. It is difficult to convey how the slightly sweet, aromatic curry sauce attracted my mouth over and over, or how fine it was to stick that bread in it. The dish was simple, delicious, and enormous, a perfect appetizer for two hungry people drinking beer and the first sign that Laut was better than it looked.

I’m usually dubious of restaurants that serve more than one Asian cuisine — it often means they don’t do any of them well. But my wife and I were in Union Square after a mildly traumatic trip to the accountant and it was dinnertime. Very little food nearby was both appealing and cheap enough, or, if it was, had no relaxing seating on which to stretch our weary bones. (I’m calling you out, Republic and Num Pang Sandwich Shop. You’re delicious, but your comfort level stinks.) Suddenly, there was Laut looming before us on 17th Street and Fifth Avenue, proudly announcing it served “Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai cuisine.” It wasn’t expensive, at least by Manhattan standards.

I was ignorant of the fact that Singaporean and Malaysian cooking are inherently very similar anyway. Both share influences from Thai cuisine, as well. Reader, my ignorance on many subjects is vast, but more unpardonable, perhaps, is that I was also unaware of these countries’ geography. Half of Malaysia sits on the same peninsula as South Thailand, and the island of Singapore immediately abuts Malaysia’s shore. The word Laut means “sea,” and Malaysia is bordered by five different seas that connect it to the rest of Southeast and South Asia. All the countries in the vicinity (including Indonesia, and even China and India) share some food traditions and blend them and reformulate them. I’ve had “sambal” (a tangy chili sauce in several variations) from Sri Lanka, but here was my Laut waitress serving me an authentically Malaysian sambal with squid, my entrée ($15).

Union Square’s Laut brings together sibling cuisines of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand

One of the Malaysian versions of sambal is made with shrimp paste crushed with chilies (belacan), and came, in this instance, with okra, string beans, bell peppers, onions, and that squid, in amazingly soft and delicate cylindrical segments. It was the nicest squid I’ve ever had in my mouth, and delicious in the very hot and slightly funky sauce.

My wife had the curry laksa with vegetables ($12). Yes, laksa, the Malay-Singaporean-Indonesian soup that adorably snotty butch Lisa Fernandes cooked on “Top Chef.” (Fangirls, she has opened a food truck in the city called Sweet Chili that you can find on Twitter.) Yes, among my many weaknesses is that I can be strongly influenced by “Top Chef.” Anthony Bourdain and Fernandes had spoken of this complex, spicy noodle soup with such a reverence that I’d always wanted to have some. Laut’s version was profound and homey, its broth thick with coconut cream, lemongrass, and galangal, and almost too spicy for me to eat. Karen adored it, though, and I did find it addictive the next day as a leftover.

Laut’s setting isn’t fancy, but there are beautiful murals on its brick walls, including an elaborate one with a squid, a bird, and a large animal turning into flowers in the midst of a psychedelic bright blue sea. Still, the plasticated paper dinner menus are banged up and even a little funky, and the bathroom plumbing isn’t perfect. Service is excellent even when the place is full to the gills, as it often is for lunch and dinner. The only time I had poor service was when I came for a very late lunch and found the lone waitress too occupied with her table of dining friends to be at all attentive to me, the only other person in the place.

But I’d rather have this food than be at a yuppie showcase. At a second meal, we had the “crispy and spicy anchovies with peanuts” and little rounds of green chili ($6), described as “must-have Malaysian style beer snacks.” Blisteringly hot, salty, and sweet from the caramelization on the peanuts, they were indeed ideal snacks with or without beer, and I’ve found myself craving them many times since then. The translucent fried anchovies were like Lilliputian salty noodles in the mix.

About that beer: unless you’re a fan of Laotian cult favorite Beerlao or Thai lager Singha, also prized by some, get the Hitachino Nest White Ale, a reputedly excellent Belgian-style white beer from Japan, made with orange and coriander, or my own choice, Brooklyn’s own Sixpoint Bengali Tiger IPA (delicious with this food). There are also cocktails and a small wine list.

Eating at Laut were couples, groups, and families of all possible race and age combinations, one of the most diverse restaurant clienteles I’ve seen in Downtown Manhattan. The clientele does tend straight (and skews young at lunch) but isn’t so exclusively.

Alas, some of the other entrées left me cold. I was looking forward to masak asam pedas (“spicy and sour clay pot”) with shrimp ($21), but it just wasn’t spicy or sour enough, despite the lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, chili-shrimp paste, and Vietnamese mint it was supposed to contain. (The shrimp, however, were perfectly cooked and, as an important matter of social justice, did not come from Thailand, where the shrimping industry is currently staffed by slaves.) Cinnamon and star anise-laden masak kicap with chicken ($15) was just okay.

Crispy chili chicken ($12), though, made an insanely good lunch one day, with little bites of chicken that were sweet and extremely hot at once.

Pulut inti ($7) was the most elaborate-sounding dessert on the menu: “steamed dry rice pudding made from glutinous rice and coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and topped with fresh grated coconut sweetened with palm sugar.” But the waitress must have misheard us, because she brought a bowl of sweet mush made from black rice mixed with coconut milk (bubur pulut hitam), which Karen judged extremely dull. The mush didn’t provide any fireworks, but I found it incredibly comforting. It’s something I would have liked to eat for breakfast, or if I were homesick and had just suffered a great loss.

At the end of another meal, the waiter brought a freebie with our check: for each of us, a little wrapped Malaysian sour green apple candy. It was plenty exciting enough, with unabashed, juicy sourness that went on for days, with only a little, teeny hit of sweet to moderate its force.

Laut, 15 East 17th Street (lautnyc.com), is wheelchair accessible enough to get to the tables, but of the restrooms, only the men’s is accessible. Reservations suggested for weekend evenings (212-206-8989).

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