Monday, October 3, 2011


Variety is the spice of life.  And Simpson Wong pretty much rules when it comes to putting a little Asian flare out there.  Cafe Asean has been on my hit list, literally, for years.  But it's also the kind of place that has cemented itself into the infrastructure of the West Village, so I never felt any urgency to visit (just an omnipresent desire).  So when the opportunity finally presented itself (i.e.  if you want to try Tertulia, get there VERY late or VERY early...), I jumped at the chance.  I've peeked in dozens of times.  The tiny room boasts just five or so tables, a low ceiling hung with paper lanterns, and the funky perfumes of fermented fish, rich soy and steamed rice.    It doesn't take much to remove yourself from the historic streets of the Village and transplant yourself into an exotically rustic little bistro of the Mekong. 

Our server was chipper and full of smiles, if a little overwhelmed handling all the tables on his own.  But he nipped about the room taking orders and then, as defly as possible, providing steaming bowls and platters to a diverse assortment of guests.  It did take awhile, though, to get our orders in, and then for them to appear, but it sort of played into the whole lazy tropical vibe they have going on.  Also, it's no quick Chinese take-out joint; there is heart and soul in this food.

We started off with a couple of appetizers (a market special of stuffed zucchini blossoms had unfortunately already sold out.. this is another reason I like to eat earrrrly!):  a mountain of crispy calamari (the crust was exceptional, the squid a bit chewy) with a bracing dipping sauce redolent of lemongrass, vinegar and garlic, and a hearty canneloni-style dumpling filled with meaty wild mushrooms (we opted for pan-seared, but they were a touch too chewy and greasy: I'd recommend going for the steam).  

For entrees we sampled a good variety:  a meat, a chicken, a fish.  The first bite of Pai Koot (Singapore-braised spare ribs) encountered an unfortunate hunk of gristle which was initially off-putting... but a second bite (and third, fourth, fifth, ad infinitum...) proved it an anomoly.  The rest of the rack was rich, meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, sided by a pillow of rice to sop the surplus of fragrant sauce, and smokily charred lettuce that held it's inner crunch while the edges of its leaves wilted into submission.  Of the chicken dishes, we opted for ayam panggang, which unfortunately was inhaled  by its orderer so I can only vouch for the fact that the meat was fork-tender and juicy, with a fragrant smoky char and looked sublime.  And the velocity with which is was consumed is going to have to speak for its tastiness.
Kekapis Dan Ikan filled the fish quotient: scallops and poor man's lobster (actually, I don't like that term: monkfish tastes nothing like lobster.  Crawdads should be poor man's lobster), and although it was a touch overcooked, the coconut curry, rife with trumpet mushrooms and bok choy, and  scented with ginger and saffron kept things lubricated.   Wok-fried Chinatown seasonal greens (a melange of Chinese water spinach and scapes) rounded things out vegetatively, which was similar to the post-prandial state of consciousness we were reaching.   With bellies full and a similarly replete agenda for the rest of the evening, we opted out of a real dessert in lieu of their classic Indonesian coffee, a strong, icy joe sweetened and lightened with cream.  Fortified with the hearty Asian fare and refreshed from the iced caffeine, I emerged from Cafe Asean feeling much like I had just landed back in New York after a brief vacation in the Orient: pleasantly reminded of the myriad flavors and nuances that are a little rarer in all the New American-locavore haunts that currently dominate the New York City restaurant scene.  It's nice, a little spice.

117 W. 10th St.
(Bet. 6th Ave. & Greenwich Ave.)
tel. (212) 633-0348

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