15 East 17th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n 5th and Broadway; map); 212-206-8989; lautnyc.com
Service: Cheery and swift
Setting: Smartly decorated
Compare It To: Nyonya
Must-Haves: Char kuey teow (with shrimp and Chinese sausage), beef rendang, mee goreng
Cost: Can easily eat for $25/person
Grade: B+ (for the Malaysian dishes)
For the last few years I've felt sorry for Laut, a mostly-Malaysian restaurant just off Union Square, when the Michelin stars for New York restaurants are announced. Because they've held onto their single star for a few years now.
I mean, I'm happy for them—earning a Michelin star is a big deal. Owner Salil Mehta, who's operated the restaurant for a few years now, must surely be pleased. But the Internet chatter inevitably takes them down a few notches. "Laut?! Laut earned a Michelin star? While [Restaurant X] still doesn't have a Michelin star? Ridiculous!" It's tough being the unlikely member of a club that includes Del Posto and Gramercy Tavern. It seems like an afterthought, a "unique cuisine" tossed on by a critic who didn't really venture far beyond Manhattan.
So I'd long been curious about Laut; and tasting their food at events around the city had only made me more curious. But after a few visits, and after plenty of less impressive meals around Chinatown, I'm convinced it's my favorite Malaysian restaurant in Manhattan.
From formal critics to eager Yelpers, the food-obsessed often have a tendency to over-promote "hole in the wall" restaurants of various national origins, with the implication that only a crowded, minimally decorated storefront with a non-English menu can possibly deliver the "real" flavors of a given cuisine. Restaurants like Laut, a little more stylish and outside a neighborhood of its cuisine's ethnic concentration, are considered imposters.
The food, however, speaks for itself. At Laut, the cuisine's signature flavors, a balance of spicy and tart and powerfully savory, shine through; the funky fermented shrimp paste belachan, the richness of good coconut milk, the fragrance of lemongrass and turmeric and galangal: they're all there in full force.
Laut's long menu winds through pad thai and teriyaki bento boxes and grilled salmon; chef Tommy Lai, who has been running the kitchen for more than two years now, was born and raised in Malaysia, and is of Chinese/Malaysian descent, clearly likes to experiment with other Asian cuisines. But your order should primarily involve the Malaysian dishes.
Start with perhaps the most iconic, the roti canai ($7). It was the better of the two roti we tried, a sculpture of thin flatbread served with a rich and pleasantly spicy coconut-based curry. (Chicken curries are often served with roti canai, but out of respect to vegetarian customers, there's no meat here.) The roti has a butter flavory superior to any that I've had in Manhattan and a great crisp texture, though it was a little thin to my taste. The best ones are almost like flat croissants, with flaky, golden exteriors and a little stretch on the inside.
Still, it had the excellent crispness that the roti telur $8) lacked. We wanted the neat squares of egg- and scallion-wrapped flatbread to be a little less soft, though the flavor was spot-on and the steamy innards were delicious when dunked in that curry. Also better in flavor than texture were the sotong goreng ($9) , fried squid whose slightly sweet five-spice coating I liked but whose sriracha-flour batter was a bit gummy.
Many of the noodle dishes can be prepared with shrimp, beef, chicken, or vegetables; we went with shrimp, for the most part (we couldn't imagine chicken making anything better, and, er, beef in curry laksa? No). We were rewarded; across the board the shrimp were perfectly cooked, fresh and snappy and not mushy in the slightest.
They shone in the char kuey teow ($10, lunch portion shown), my favorite of Malaysian noodle dishes (and at this point, one of my favorite foods in general). The noodles got such heat from the wok it was visible, a dark brown rim around the pale strips; that signature wok-smoky wok hei flavor married with the soy-chili sauce and sweet, fatty crisped-up bits of Chinese sausage. The rice noodles were springy and firm, and while you've got your choice of meat, please don't order chicken here; their excellent shrimp plus sausage is the way to go. Equally strong was the mee goreng ($10, lunch portion shown), another classic street dish of wok-fried noodles. This time, they're thin and egg-based, tossed in a similar soy-chili sauce along with bean sprouts, tofu, tomato, and egg.
And while $19 is more than you'll pay for beef rendang at any other Malaysian restaurant in town, it's memorably good. Great beef rendang is bound with a coconut-based dry curry rich with warming spices and aromatics, cooked down so long that the braising liquid evaporates and only the coconut oil and spices remain. The beef actually fries in that spice-infused oil at the end. At most Chinatown Malaysian restaurants—and, frankly, at plenty of restaurants in Malaysia—the beef stays tough and untouched by its delicious surroundings, with a deeply spiced curry but unappealing meat. At Laut, though, it's fall-apart tender, meat and curry fused together. Full though our table was, we could easily have put back another bowl.
Looking for something on the cheaper end? Nasi lemak ($10, lunch portion shown) had rice that was slightly dry but properly suffused with coconut flavor, with all the usual accompaniments: peanuts, fried anchovies (ikan bilis), and the well-cooked, firm shrimp were doused in an incredibly shrimpy sambal that I couldn't get enough of—the funkiest, most powerful flavors of the meal. The pickled vegetables were almost their equal, and the cucumber offered a fresh bite to finish it off.
We wished the same powerful flavors has been present in the shrimp sambal ($10, lunch portion shown), which featured tasty, well-cooked shrimp in a reasonably spicy chili sambal that lacked the intense flavor of the shrimp hanging out with the nasi lemak. The peppers and onions were cut into rough chunks too large to really integrate.
The one letdown was the curry laksa ($15), whose coconut-based broth wasn't quite as silky as it could be, and whose thin egg noodles were a bit overcooked. Laksa's often served with lime on the side; a squirt over this dish would've brightened it up considerably.
Of the desserts, I loved the peanut pancake ($8.50, +$1 for ice cream). I was imagining something like apam balik, a dessert of pancakes often folded over a peanut filling; in Malaysia, they're generally either spongy like American pancakes, or thinner and closer to a crepe. But these were essentially the same structure as the roli telur, except with much crisper edges and a rough—but creamy and nicely salty—peanut butter. It didn't need the optional ice cream, but there's nothing wrong with it either. Mango sticky rice ($7) sounded promising, as it often does, but the almost crunchy-firm mango and rice so thick it needed substantial chewing weren't nearly as good as they can be. Better was the Pulut Hitam ($7), black sticky rice cooked into a pudding with coconut milk, sugar, and pandan leaves.
Do I think it's the equal of Del Posto, Cafe Boulud, or Gramercy Tavern, all of which also have one Michelin star? Of course not. Nor do I prefer it to Vandaag, Fedora, Kin Shop, ABC Kitchen, or Torrisi Italian Specialties, none of which have a star. But that's an indictment of the Michelin system, not of Laut. All it's seeking to be is a good Malaysian restaurant in Manhattan, which, in my mind, it's doing very well.
Next up: Brooklyn and Queens. Any recommendations there?