Walking into Pasar Malam is transportive on so many levels. The narrow exterior, facing Grand Street in Williamsburg gives the smallest hint, with its subtle wooden carvings, but step inside and all the harsh, blustery weather outside melts away and you find yourself in a mini Malaysian nightmarket.
The number and variety of dishes on the menu is a true testament to the passion and excitement that chef and owner, Salil Mehta, imbues into his restaurant. An expression of his culture and the desire to welcome his diners into the warm, exotic flavors of his home–each dish has a story and a purpose on the menu and is created with the love and devotion of a true artist. No corners are cut, no ingredients substituted (unless as a creative improvement) and no palates are catered to – this is the real deal and beautifully so. The flavors might be unlikely to a Western palate, but it is a magnificent, thrilling experience to those who love to excite new taste buds and push a few limits.
That said, we’re not talking about “extreme food,” in the sense of eating something for bragging rites alone. The menu that Chef Mehta has created is fantastically delicious and takes cue from the rich melting pot of culture that weaves across Malayasia. Thus, the flavors encountered are not necessarily something you will be tasting for the first time, but it will be the way that you are tasting them—the surprising combinations and the luscious freshness. Chef Mehta routinely grinds and pounds his own herb and spice mixes, using only the freshest ingredients and spending days crafting sauces and soups, making sure they live up to his high standards.
This devotion is not lost on his customers, who easily become devoted fans of the restaurant after their first visit. And perhaps in even further testimony to Chef Mehta’s integrity, Malaysian New Yorkers are among his most ardent fans, and returning the love, he has created the Makan Club (#Makanclub) in which customers can request specific dishes that they yearn for from home. With at least 48 hours notice, Chef Mehta will gladly create the beloved dishes his customers can get no where else.
We arrived weather worn and hungry on an especially dreary weekday, but already began to feel rejuvenated by Pasar Malam’s atmosphere, evoking steamy South East Asian nights – our eyes lighting up at the bold sign in the back, naming the types of roti (Malaysian pancakes) available. We wasted no time ordering the Roti Jala, a lacy textured version, and the thicker, folded Roti Telur, which comes stuffed with egg and spicy pepper. Both arrived with a coconut curry dipping sauce and warm, spicy, exotic respite from the chilly day. This is a true comfort food, 100% craveable any night of the week and they disappeared at our table in record time.
Having traveled to Singapore and eaten the ubiquitous Chili Crab specialty, I was especially curious to see how Pasar Malam’s rendition lived up to my memory of the dish. Traditionally, a giant, glistening crab swimming in a lake of gelatinous chili sauce is something to be wrestled with as much as eaten. And, despite sopping up the sauce with spongy, white steamed buns (mantou – chili crab’s traditional accompaniment), there is no way to escape showers of the sticky, spicy sauce. Inevitably you spend the rest of your evening smelling like a chili crab, yourself.
The version I tried at Pasar Malam not only lived up to memory, it actually surpassed the original in a number of ways. The sauce was richly nuanced, perfectly balanced with spiciness and sweetness, and was a silky rather than a sticky texture. Chef Mehta also gave a brilliant update to the dish by using soft shell crab instead of the overwhelming and messy larger version. The dainty crabs had a delightful crunch and were much easier to eat (and also soak up the sumptuous chili sauce with). Instead of being showered with sauce, our table was showered with “yums” as we polished off the dish.
If at any time you become overwhelmed reading the menu at Pasar Malam, it is highly recommended to take the gentle advice of your server. The unofficial head server, Dennis, was as knowledgeable and as he was enthusiastic about guiding us through both the familiar and the wildly unfamiliar dishes. It seemed like a bit of playful glee was behind his insistence that we order the Walkie Talkie, a plate of intimidating, whole chicken feet. But the glee was all ours after we took our first (albeit cautious) bites—they were incredibly good, and very unique. The vibrant sauce giving an added “kick.”
Other menu standouts included the Asam Laksa a fragrant and intense soup, layered with laifun rice noodles, vegetables and fresh herbs – perfect to wake you up from the winter stupor; the insanely good Sotong Goreng – basically the best, spicy crispy calamari we’ve tasted in years; and Beef Rendang, which melts luxuriously in the mouth, seeping the deep, curry-infused sauce in every glorious bite (the intense depth of flavor requires two days of preparation, Chef Mehta told us).
Though they might not be famous (yet) for dessert in Malaysia, we were again delightfully surprised by what Pasar Malam offered. Intrepidly, we ordered the Roti Tisu, intrigued by its short description: “Crispy tower.” Indeed, a towering, but delicate cone of a Malaysian crepe arrived at our table, drizzled with a thin ribbon of caramel. The texture and flavor was so light and fragrant, that despite its large countenance, it was one of the least filling desserts imaginable, and absolutely perfect for ending a rich meal. Another surprise was the beautiful but exotic simplicity of the Young Coconut Pudding. Lightly sweet and nutty (enhanced with the infusion of wonderful pandan leaves), we were even more delighted to hear that the dessert had no added sugar – the sweetness we tasted was that of the coconut alone.
Perhaps the sweet finish underscores another welcoming discovery about Malaysian food – that it is remarkably healthy. Though there is a fair share of fried morsels available, the bases of all the soups and sauces, despite their resoundingly flavorful impact, are the herbs and spices in their truest form, unencumbered with heavy, greasy additions.
One more reason, too, why you can taste the authentic love in every dish that finds its way to the tables of Pasar Malam.
– Ava Fedorov
Photos by Ava for Socially Superlative
208 Grand Street, Williamsburg Brooklyn