In case you didn’t know, ASEAN stands for the “Association of South East Asian Nations,” and true to its name, Cafe ASEAN in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a restaurant I literally stumbled upon, is a place where you can savor dishes from Malaysian, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam–all under one cozy roof. But unlike the popular “hawker centers” in Singapore, whose food ASEAN loosely seeks to replicate, the scene here is a little more rustic, and more in line with New York prices, though definitely reasonable. ASEAN and it’s owner Simpson Wong got a good mention in a food memoir I’m currently reading called, A Tiger In The Kitchen, by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a Singaporean-Chinese expat, so I invited my brother and his wife along to give it a try.
With so many interesting things on the menu, but a finite appetite, we started out with a couple of appetizers: Sotong, salt & pepper calamari with a spicy mango salsa, and ped muan, which is a fresh Vietnamese-style summer roll of roasted duck, lettuce leaves, mint, and cucumber stuffed into a rice paper roll. My brother, expecting grilled instead of battered, fried calamari, was a little disappointed, but I thought the duck in the ped muan was perfectly cooked and the freshness of the roll itself was like biting into a tubular salad. Of course, the dipping sauce of roasted garlic and chili sauce, similar to Sriracha, added the perfect kick.
For our main courses, my brother had the Kari kapitan, a Malaysian coconut curry chicken with potatoes; my sister-in-law, a vegetarian, had the Sayur campur, another coconut-milk based curry; and I had the Ayam pangang, grilled Balinese spiced chicken with steamed eggplant and Chinese spinach.
Both coconut-milk based curries were too sweet with not enough of a balance of heat for our liking (my brother and I grew up on seriously spicy food, and to this day we can down chilies like candy). His Kari Kapitan verged on being bland even, with a predominant taste of coconut milk, and not much else going on. My Balinese chicken, on the other hand, while not spicy, had been marinated in lemon grass and then grilled to a nice char giving it a great smoky flavor. It was still juicy as well, and I ditched the fork and knife to enjoy every last bit of it.
With not much going on for dessert besides a sweet sticky rice or a coconut flan, I went for the latter, which was served with slices of slightly under-ripe mango. The flan itself tasted fine, but I could not really detect the coconut. We have a version of coconut flan in Sri Lanka called wattalapam, and I have not found any other Asian nation to match a dessert like this since we use a highly concentrated palm sugar called ‘jaggery’ to make it (along with, of course, loads of fresh coconut milk).
My brother gave ASEAN the thumbs down, but I’m willing to give it another try since their menu is so diverse and not limited to one Asian cuisine. Apparently, Simpson Wong also owns another place simply called Wong, which might be worth a try as well.
Cafe ASEAN is cash only