Malaysian Master: Dining at Rasa

Malaysian Master: Dining at Rasa

It's no wonder that the West Village's newest Malaysian restaurant, Rasa, has a name that translates to "taste" in English. The tastebuds of all who enter will be electrified. Mine certainly were.

What else can you expect from a seasoned Malaysian master? Tommy Lai, a kind and soft-spoken gentleman who helms the kitchen here, was the first Malaysian chef to earn a Michelin star in New York. He opened Rasa, an intimate, 52-seat restaurant, with his sister and business partner, Camie Lai—a petit woman, all warmth and tapioca bubbles, dressed in a chic skirt suit—and the pair has brought the flavor and influence of their hometown, Selangor, Malaysia, to the menu. Chef Tommy Lai's culture and origin are where his culinary inspirations are rooted: "My childhood has greatly informed my food philosophy," says the chef through a translator, "growing up in a fishing village has taught me to understand the value of fresh seafood and seasonal ingredients." A sampling of his street food-inspired Southeast Asian flavors made me ready to hop on the first flight headed East.

Camie Lai flitted between the tables, endearing herself to guests and explaining the history of dishes being served. As a waiter placed the Hainanese Chicken on our table, she chimed in: "This was my favorite dish as a young girl. Very authentic. The chili and soy sauces are traditional accompaniments, but my favorite is the cilantro sauce." And it was delicious. The chicken was impossibly moist, served with skin and pre-sliced. When dipped into the rich, brown sauce (with a tantalizing mound of wilted cilatro mixed in), the experience was delightful. I couldn't help but inquire about the preparation process (rarely have I had poultry so perfectly moist). Camie Lai smiled at me knowingly: "We dunk the bird in ice after it is boiled to lock in the moisture and halt the cooking process." The result is a bird that is supernaturally soft and silky, so tender and wet that chewing is almost totally unnessecary. 

The beef Rendang (pictured), a staple, impressed as well. The dish is rooted in Malaysian cuisine, but is widely consumed in Thailand, Singapore and across Asia. The ingredient list is long: 32 in total, with exotic spices ranging from Gula Melaka (coconut palm sugar) to kaffir lime leaves. To call the dish complex would be an understatment. Each bit of tenderized beef explodes with flavor. Not into meat? No worries. I was dining with a vegetarian (I myself am a shameless carnivore), and the staff was supremely accomodating (no soggy plates of tasteless, steamed veggies here). The chef was so excited about my veggie-loving colleague experiencing the Rendang flavor that he prepared her a special sister dish dressed in the same seductive sauce (comprised of cauliflower, broccoli, peppers and rice). Vegetarians take note: You have a welcome seat at Rasa.

When I go Southeast Asian, I want to finish with tapioca. Rasa came through once again. The pudding dessert (pictured) was sublime. The cream-colored sweet was studded with tapioca beads and dressed with Gula Melaka and coconut cream. If decency hadn't held me back, I would have licked the bowl. 

Rasa is worth a taste. You'll leave hooked on Malaysian hospitality.

>>Rasa, 25 W. 8th St., 212.253.9888