Sunday, 12 January 2014

Rasa-lah New York

The interior of Rasa Restaurant, opened by Malaysian siblings in New York City.

The interior of Rasa Restaurant, opened by Malaysian siblings in New York City.

Siblings bring the taste of their kampung to New York City’s hip Greenwich Village with the opening of their restaurant, Rasa.

ONCE a bohemian capital but now known for its cool hangouts, vibrant Greenwich Village in New York City has upped its ethnic cool factor with the opening of Rasa, a restaurant featuring a “Malaysian-inspired menu”.

Behind the venture are Selangor-born chefs Camie Lai Chew Yoong and Tommy Lai Ngan Ping, siblings who have been living in New York for the past two decades.

“There are a handful of Malaysian restaurants in New York City, but none present the level of authenticity Camie Lai means to offer at Rasa,” said The Village Voice, a local newsweekly in its review of Rasa which opened on Dec 12.

The media eye is on Rasa as the duo hail from Laut, another New York City Asian restaurant known for its “Malaysian-inspired menu” which won a Michelin star in the 2011 Guide. It could be construed that Laut is the first Malaysian-cuisine restaurant to win a star. Even though Thai food and sushi were on the menu, the Malaysian dishes were what captured the diners’ and one can assume, the Michelin inspectors’ hearts.

Siblings Camie Lai (extreme left) and Tommy Lai (second from left). They are the co-owners of Rasa, which is a Malaysian restaurant in Manhattan, New York City. Tommy is also the head chef at Rasa. With them are Vincent Wong (sous chef) and Michael Lai, who is a cousin of the Lai siblings. Michael  (extreme right) is also a co-owner of Rasa.
Siblings Camie Lai (left) and Tommy Lai (second from left) are co-owners of Rasa. With them are sous
chef Vincent Wong (second from right) and their cousin Michael Lai, who is also a co-owner.

“Getting a Michelin star was a big boost for me. I was delighted as it is not something that comes easily,” said Tommy, 44, who joined the restaurant the same year as chef.

With Tommy in the kitchen, Laut managed to retain its one star for a couple of years, but subsequently lost it in the 2013 Guide and now has a Michelin Bib Gourmand, inspector’s favourite restaurant for good value.

Born to a poor family in Rasa, Selangor, the siblings have come a long way to earn the accolades in one of the dining capitals of the world.

“As kids, we used to fight among ourselves even for biscuits,” Camie, 46, said of the days when there was little food on the table for her and her three younger brothers. Their father was a mechanic while mum worked as a rubber tapper to feed the family. By the age of seven, Camie had learnt to cook to help around the house.

Home was a desolate place surrounded by trees, plants and herbs, and the young Camie had nothing better to do than get to know the lemongrass and pandan plants. With hardship staring them in the face, and the prospect of hunger never very far away, the Lai family felt that they should try their fortune elsewhere.

Camie’s father made that first move to New York and eventually, Camie went there, too, when she was 16.

“I didn’t know anything then; I attended classes, worked at clothing stores and many other jobs like telephone operator. I also took up kitchen work such as peeling prawns.”

She recounted the days of living in a small apartment shared with 10 tenants.

The nasi lemak served in Rasa Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Rasa
Nasi lemak

“There was no air-conditioning, and no heat (for cold winter days),” she said.

A year later, Camie went off to Long Island, New York, to work full time. She got a job in a restaurant where she worked from 10am to midnight. Her task included cutting the boxes which were used for take-out meals.

At one point, her eyes could not even focus clearly due to the strain.

“Life was tough but it made me strong,” she said.

However, she missed home, so three years later, she decided to head back to Malaysia.

“I told my father that I did not want to be in New York any more. He said to me, ‘it’s your call’.”

She was delighted to be back home, initially.

“I was very happy to be home and met up with my friends. But as weeks passed, I realised that they had to get back to their work, their life. And I asked myself, ‘what am I going to do’?”

She decided to take another shot at New York.

The beef rendang dish served at Rasa Restaurant in New York City. Photo courtesy of Rasa.
Beef rendang

Today, the whole Lai family (dad, mum, Camie and her three brothers) is in the Big Apple. Her brother Tommy arrived in New York at the age of 19 and found work at dimsum restaurants, among others.

Camie worked at another Malaysian restaurant, Penang, for many years before opening Laut with a business partner. When the duo sold the restaurant, Camie decided to open her own Malaysian restaurant and teamed up with little brother Tommy once again.

So they spent some time in Malaysia and Singapore researching the right flavours for dishes such as Penang assam laksa, nasi lemak, Hokkien prawn mee, yong tau foo, curry mee, and Hainanese chicken rice.

They had to deal with problems such as high wages and tough labour laws in New York before they finally opened Rasa, which they explained to their Western clients meant “taste”.

The restaurant is located at 25 West 8 Street, which is just a block away from the famed New York University.

“There is a very cosy atmosphere here. We are surrounded by clothing stores, bakeries and pubs,” said Camie, explaining why they decided to open Rasa at Greenwich Village, which decades ago, was the place for musicians, poets and writers.

In July 2012, The Guardian said in a write-up that “Greenwich Village may not be as bohemian as it was in its beatnik heyday, but it’s still home to some of the city’s best old-time jazz clubs, pubs, bars, restaurants and delis.”

The Rasa Restaurant in New York City, opened by Malaysian siblings. Photo courtesy of Rasa.
Restaurant exterior, showing its signage. — Rasa Restaurant photos

Since Rasa opened its doors, the 52-seat restaurant with 18 staff has seen brisk business and good reviews, said Camie, who is married with a 20-year-old daughter.

Rasa’s menu is extensive, ranging from wat tan hor, which is described as broad and crispy noodles with bean sprouts, scallions, eggs, onions and kale with spicy shrimp paste sauce, to kampung fried rice.

Popular dishes so far include the Penang assam laksa. There is also cincalok sambal, described as fermented raw baby shrimps, with bird-eye chillies, shallots and lime juice, which Camie makes herself.

Rasa, Camie said, is a great place for Malaysian “comfort food”, and a place to get together and reminisce a’la Friends, the once popular sitcom that was set in Greenwich Village. She, however, acknowledged that the dishes served at Rasa are not 100% authentic like the ones Malaysians are used to. The char kuay teow, for instance, contained no cockles; a fact which may upset the purists.

“You can’t find cockles here,” Camie explained. “And the curry powder isn’t like those we get back home. Furthermore, ingredients such as kaffir lime leaves cost about US$30 (RM100) per pound (450g) here, which is too pricey.”

Just days after its opening, the New York Daily News mentioned the restaurant in a review, recommending the beef rendang, which is “simmered with lemongrass, lime leaves and coconut milk.”

Prior to that, travel and food guide Zagat gave Rasa pre-publicity in its website with a headline report announcing “Malaysian Street Food coming to Greenwich Village”, stating that Tommy, a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant, was prepping to open his new restaurant.

The heat is on for Tommy and Camie to repeat the success at Laut with Rasa, and they will be holding their breath when the next Michelin New York Guide is released at the end of 2014.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Rasa , Greenwich Village , Michelin star , Camie , Tommy Lai


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