Sunday, July 16, 2006

Four Asian Spots New York Entry #109

Over the past weeks I have traveled the silk roads of New York, bolstering my culinary memories. I recently dined at a Malaysian restaurant (Skyway) in east Chinatown, a Javanese restaurant (Mie Jakarta) in Elmhurst, a northern Chinese dumpling shop on the same Elmhurst avenue (Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House), and a Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island (New Asha Café).

Skyway is a well-designed space, more airy than is typical for the area, and one of several Chinatown establishments that serve Malaysian food, some of which are reported to be mediocre. Skyway is impressive. I understand from Pan that the provenance of the dishes vary widely, some being street food, others breakfast cuisine, and still others more elaborate presentations. They originate in several corners of Malaysia - from the more Thai-influenced west to the more Chinese east. Most dishes were highly satisfying, and I was startled that the sauces were far less fiery than I expected, but revelatory in their complexity of spices.

I particularly enjoyed the Nasi Lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk, a very luxurious taste, served with an array of accompaniments, including mashed anchovies, potatoes, and peanuts. Roti telur, roti with fried eggs, is a Malaysian breakfast dish. Quite pleasant if not startling. The beef and satays were fine, particularly their smoky peanut sauce. The two dishes that benefitted most from the rich blend of spices - what I gather is labeled rempah (spicy mixture) - were a squid with "special sauce" and "aromatic crab" (a Dungeness crab, baked in a combination of spices). The crab was particularly remarkable, worth its $25 pricetag. Finally Kang Kung Balacan, Chinese water spinach with shrimp paste, was one of the most compelling Asain vegetable dishes I have had in some time. For this banquet for four (including the crab), the price/person was a remarkable $21.00.

I understand from the ever intrepid Robert Sietsema that Mie Jakarta is a rare Javanese restaurant that competes against several rival Sumatran establishments (including one on the same black, of which MJ is an offshoot). Although the restaurant is rather tight, it is also serene in its shades of pink and tan. Mie Jakarta means Jakarta Noodles (Jakarta is Indonesia's capital and financial center), and the restaurant, lacking an extensive menu specializes in "Mie" or noodles. It is the Queens equivalent of a warung or hawker stall. Price/person was $8.00.

The most startling pleasure was the Sio Mie - rice noodle dumplings surrounded by a peanut sauce with palm sugar (although pronounced like the Chinese Shu-mei, it is quite distinct). The noodles were compelling and addictive, and I left musing on how to create a Sio Mie pipeline to the Midwest. Also delightful were Mie Goreng, the traditional Indonesian fried noodles, and a lovely, frothy, fruity, pink cream drink with tapioca and avocado. I was less taken with the fried wontons, more snacks than food and the Ayam Rica, Chicken covered with a red sauce of pickled chilies - although not super-hot, and surrounded with egg, rice, cucumber slices, and shrimp chips. Mie Jakarta is a choice restaurant hidden in plain sight that every chowist hopes to discover. I did.

A few doors down from Mie Jakarta is Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House, a modest stand with a few tables, serving Northern Chinese dumplings. Happily we were able to watch a noodle master stretching and shaping dough for our repast. Most striking among a triad of dumplings was boiled Celery Dumplings which I found surprisingly evocative and a very good version of Fresh Pork and Chive dumplings. Our long noodles with beef and herbs was fulfilling. And as pleasurable was the food (a few dollars/person) - and the company - we chose to eat at the diverse and busy local park, a block from the restaurant, the one-time homestead of Clement Moore, the Nineteenth Century Episcopal leader and poet, best known for "The Night Before Christmas." Consuming superb dumplings on a warm July evening in a charming park, I was receiving my presents under the tree.

The fourth restaurant is a small Sri Lankan café that I visited for lunch on my trip to Staten Island. Tiny and modest with four tables, this is not a restaurant for a large crowd, and the food is aimed at the working Sri Lanka community. I enjoyed talking with the proprietor (a friend is Sri Lankan), and relished the mutton and chicken dishes. Lamb (or mutton) roti, a rich, dark chicken curry, and samosas were all good with the curry worth a repeat. (Perhaps $10.00 for my meal). The dosas (thosas) and bowl-shaped breads called hoppers were not available that Sunday. Along with Italian food, Sri Lanka cuisine is characteristic of Staten Island, and justifies a ferry ride on a lovely summer day.

Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House
86-08 Whitney Avenue (at Broadway)
Queens (Elmhurst)

Mie Jakarta
86-20 Whitney Avenue (at Broadway)
Queens (Elmhurst)

New Asha Café
322 Victory Boulevard (at Cebra Avenue)
Staten Island (Tompkinsville)

Skyway Malaysian Restaurant
11 Allen Street (at Canal)
Manhattan (Chinatown)

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