Laut–Malaysia in Manhattan

By Bonnie Chan

Laut, meaning “sea” in the Malay language, was picked as an auspicious name for a restaurant, because in one syllable, it conjures up the image of good fortune gener­ously and abundantly flowing in one’s direction. This has certainly been the case for both Michael Bong, recently given the Best Chef Award by the governor of Melaka (a state located in Malaysia), and his wife, Kathy Wong. The Malaysian couple arrived in America 22 years ago with a mere two hundred dollars between them. Since then, in an inspiring journey that started with an arduous 3-day, 2-night bus ride from Los Angeles to New York City, the two have accumulated extensive experience, going from working in restaurants to running their own.

In May 2008, Laut opened on E. 17th St between Fifth Ave and Broadway, finally real­izing the Bongs’ dream of bringing Malaysian cuisine to Manhattan. The elegant and attractive pan-Asian restaurant includes Thai dishes and sushi on its menu; however, the star attraction is undoubtedly its Malaysian selection. Laut’s Malaysian cuisine has been critically reviewed as being intensely flavorful, deliciously-spiced, and providing an authentic gateway into one of Asia’s underexposed food capitals of the world — a welcome contrast to Malaysian restaurants that might water down original flavor for local palates.

Particularly popular traditional dishes include the asam laksa and asam pedas. The first, asam laksa, is a fish broth with rice noodles, and has a complex, rich and delightfully briny flavor that marries the uniquely sweet and sourness of tamarind with the fishiness of shredded anchovy. Other ingredients include cucumber, pineapple, shallots, onion; finally, the dish is topped off with a garnish of Vietnamese mint. The second dish, asam pedas, which literally translates over to “sour spicy,” is a savory tamarind-flavored soup that can either feature fish or shrimp, depending on one’s preference. Okra and tomatoes are the main complements in Laut’s particular rendition of this highly popular, classic Malaysian dish. The staff at Laut is ex­cited to wel­come Chinese New Year with open arms. Come 2010, during a special 15-day long period, from February 14th to the 29th, every table setting will be adorned with a tangerine, which is a Chinese symbol of luck, and a hong bao (also known as “red envelope”) containing a lucky penny as well as a surprise. Additionally, Laut will also unveil a Chinese New Year menu in time for the holiday, with each unique dish specially selected for its auspicious qualities.

One such dish is the delicious ho si fat choy — ho si is the literal name for the dried oysters, but in Cantonese, the words also mean “good business/wealth”; fat choy is the literal name for the black moss seaweed, while also serving as a homonym for “prosperity.” However, the main feature of the Chinese New Year menu will be the essential yu sheng dish, the centerpiece of a Malaysian tradition that celebrates this significant holiday. Yu sheng literally translates to “raw fish,” but in the same wordplay as the previous dish, also means “increase in abundance.” The dish consists of fresh marinated salmon, shredded pickled vegetables, leek, ginger, crispy deep-fried wonton noodles, with a sweet plum-based dress­ing. Each ingredient of this salad dish is arranged separately on the plate. Then, following tradition, friends and family members are encouraged to gather around and rigorously mix the ingredients, before enthusiastically tossing the contents up in the air with their chopsticks, as high as possible! The food is symbolic of the participants’ financial and personal endeavors, making the tossing an augur of success that will soar to unlimited heights.

Hong bao, a beautiful miniature peach blos­som tree at the entrance, and delectable, authen­tic Malaysian food that will tide you smoothly into the new year — every sign in Laut certainly points to good luck!