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How a Chef and His Customers Have Changed
Salil Mehta is helping shape New York's Southeast Asian food renaissance
Salil Mehta has been shaping how New Yorkers eat Southeast Asian fare. It started in 2008 with Laut, his Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai restaurant in Union Square — which earned a Michelin star in 2011 — followed by Laut Singapura in Gramercy in 2019. Then last year, he opened Southeast Asian comfort food-focused Wau on the Upper West Side — with dishes like rendang beef and pineapple flower fish curry — followed by his newest, post-pandemic spot that debuted in March, the fast-casual Chard in Union Square where he offers papaya salad, roti, and a spicy “api api” burger.
Mehta was only 22 when he opened Laut, he says. “I had more brawn than brain,” but hard work and “no time off for nine years,” led to essential lessons, he says.
It’s not just Mehta who’s changed; so has the dining public. They’re more traveled, he says, so they’re often looking for dishes they’ve had abroad. In addition, his customers are looking for shorter menus geared toward regional specialties — what the chef is good at. No more multi-page menus like an old-school diner or a family restaurant. In seeking out fewer dishes, they’re looking for higher quality, too.
Particularly post-pandemic, diners are seeking out dinner-as-an-event, which means offering different experiences as opposed to a consistent reliable dining experience with a static menu, he says.
In some ways, the supply chain problems are forcing chefs like Mehta to switch things up. Now, “it’s a very big challenge to get ingredients from Southeast Asia,” he says — which leads to menu changes. And from last year to this year, food prices have gone up 50 percent in some cases. The pandemic led to lots of chef retirements, too. For his style of cooking, “There aren’t too many young chefs,” he says, which could mean “the future of South East Asian cooking is in peril.”
But the chef, who’s originally from New Delhi, says he’s optimistic about the future of New York and New York dining. “New York,” he says, “is as resilient as ever.”
For Broken Palate readers who don’t live in New York, Mehta offers this recipe below.
The Rendang is offered at several of Salil's restaurants but was originally popularized at his first location, Laut. The dish is also available on the menu at Wau and Laut Singapura.
3 lbs of beef (chuck or muscle)
800 ml of coconut milk
3/4 pandan leaves
Turmeric leaves (if you cannot find them, use curry leaves)
For the paste
6 cloves of garlic
1-inch piece of fresh turmeric root
2-inch piece of ginger
Fresh red chile upon preference
Dry red chile, 30 pieces soaked
2 pieces of lemongrass only the white part
1-inch piece of galangal
4 or 5 toasted candlenut
Hint of toasted belacan (shrimp paste) (optional)
Blend together and put aside
3 star anise
2 cinnamon stick
4 to 5 green cardamom
5 to 6 cloves
4 tablespoons chili powder
4 tablespoons coriander powder
4 tablespoons Malay curry powder
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon fennel powder
1/4 tablespoon nutmeg
For kersik (coconut butter)
Dry roast 200 grams desiccated coconut until golden. In a mortar and pestle, grind until it releases the oil and turns into a butter consistency. This will take a while.
For the remaining ingredients
In a heavy-bottomed pan, add 200 mL of coconut milk until it releases its oil. Add spice paste. And dry spices along with pandan. Add blended paste. Cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the beef and cook for another five minutes in high heat.
Add the rest of the coconut milk, cover and cook on low heat until meat is completely tender, stirring occasionally making sure the bottom doesn’t stick.
Serve with jasmine rice, fresh cucumber, and toasted coconut for garnish.