Fire on Grand Street

16 Nov

When we visited Nyonya in early 2003, before the internet food site explosion, the Malaysian restaurant, though located in Little Italy a few doors from the great Di Palo Fine Foods, was still somewhat under the radar. At the time, it had a following, but nothing like it does now. It was our group’s first experience with Malaysian food and the unadulterated heat that distinguishes it.  We like unadulterated—heat or otherwise—so Malaysian food became one of our most repeated cuisines.

199 Grand Street
Little Italy

Zio confided that he had many options for our upcoming food destination, but the thought of crispy pork intestines, beef tripe noodle soup, fresh fish head cooked with lemon grass, and sooi pooi (sour plum) drink which Nyonya, the place he ultimately chose, offered, was too enticing for him to pass on. So all of us, Eugene excepted, who was on a Caribbean cruise and most likely at work on the unlimited buffet line, assembled in the bustling tiki-hut like restaurant in Chinatown. We were the few non-Asians in the restaurant; a very promising sign.

The menu was extensive and when not entranced by the bloated fish swimming in the tank behind our table, we had to concentrate on the task ahead: what to order. Crunch time came and all Zio could come up with after the promise of a variety of organ meats in coconut milk was the relatively conventional mango chicken. Eugene was probably experiencing more exotic fare on his cruise.  Zio’s selection was vociferously vetoed and after much urging switched to the more adventurous, kari ayam, described in the menu as chicken cooked over low heat with lemongrass and chili paste and simmered in thick rich coconut curry. Charlie stuck with chicken as well and gambled on the Hainanese chicken, steamed (room temperature) with a chef’s soy sauce. Gerry ordered the kang kung belacan, which translated meant sautéed “convolus” with spicy Malaysian shrimp paste sauce. We had to ask one of the dozen or so waitresses who were attending to our table for the translation of “convolus,” and were told that it was Malaysian string beans. Rick showed his fortitude by ordering cheng-lai stingray while I went with the comparatively mundane curry spareribs.



It wasn’t that the promise of gargantuan main courses was not enough for us. It was that Nyona’s appetizers looked much too good on paper to pass up. So we started with the so-called “Malaysian national dish,” roti canai, an Indian pancake with a curry chicken dipping sauce. Chicken satay and Poh Piah, a Malaysian spring roll stuffed with jicama and minced shrimp rounded out our first courses. To drink there was Chinese beer for most of us while Zio insisted instead on the fresh coconut juice. When his drink arrived in half a real coconut and a big straw, we wondered why the pink umbrella was missing.  Zio, oblivious as always, cradled the coconut in his hands and sucked the juice from the straw. We looked at him for a moment, savoring the absurd sight, and then went back to our beer.

The parade of waitresses began piling the food on our table almost immediately and just as quickly we began to devour it, eating the roti canai with our hands, dipping it into the murky, but very tasty curry, pulling at the tender satay, and wondering over the jicama in the spring roll. Rick’s sting ray (a.k.a. skate) was the first entrée to arrive and we picked at the perfectly cooked flesh, dipping it into a fiery sauce. At Nyonya, fiery was the theme; the curry spareribs particularly sinus-clearing while Zio’s chicken, also very spicy and falling off the bone. In fact, all of the food, including the sautéed “convolus” which tasted nothing like string beans, wax beans, green beans or anything else we had previously encountered, was hot with the one exception of Charlie’s wan-looking “room temperature” chicken, which many at the table found unappealing; though Gerry and I thought it’s blandness was the perfect antidote to the heat in the other dishes.



We worked through all the food at the table with only a few pieces of the above-mentioned Hainanese chicken remaining—and no volunteers to take it home. Our stomachs bloated, no one even mentioned dessert…not even the usually insatiable Zio. In Eugene’s absence, I was left to do the math and after tip and including drinks, we came in one dollar over our $20 budget—meaning, excluding the drinks, that we actually came under budget.

A few years ago Nyonya moved across Grand Street to a shiny new space. It also branched out to Brooklyn with two locations. I’m not sure if now Nyonya would qualify for our group. Too popular. Really almost a chain with three branches in the city. But that is now, and the above was then and none of us had any complaints about what we experienced in 2003.

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