It’s a well-known fact that the New York dining public comprises two distinct personality types: the foodies and the scenesters. Although there’s occasionally some overlap, the former can be found stalking elusive, borough-hopping Bangladeshi chefs, while the latter are content to skulk down to the meatpacking district and shimmy into whichever establishment looks suitably thronged, menu notwithstanding. The Underground Gourmet belongs firmly to the first camp, and so, we’d always presumed, does Zak Pelaccio, chef of 5 Ninth and its newly opened Malaysian spinoff, Fatty Crab.
True, Pelaccio made the unlikely (some might say Faustian) move from Williamsburg, where he cooked at the lovably funky Chickenbone Café, to the superheated meatpacking district, but 5 Ninth (despite its admittedly talented kitchen and killer Cuban sandwich) has never struck us as an especially Pelaccian kind of place. Fatty Crab, on the other hand, emphatically does. Everything from its laid-back and droopy-trousered but deceptively efficient crew to its open kitchen and congenially cramped environs reminds us of the Chickenbone.
And then there’s the kang kong. We first had that unforgettable Asian green at Chickenbone, where Pelaccio seasoned it (to put it mildly) with belacan, the pungent Malaysian shrimp paste. He’s reprised that dish at Fatty Crab, and to his credit (and the credit of his deputy, chef Corwin Kave), he hasn’t made any concessions for timid meatpacking-district palates. The stuff is still super-funky, as is most of Fatty Crab’s small-plates menu—straight-up Malaysian fare inspired by food Pelaccio cooked and ate when he lived there.
In typical small-plate fashion, diners are encouraged to share, and plates emerge from the open kitchen as they’re ready. Quail-egg shooters make a ridiculously dainty, if bold, starter: four to an order, lined up on a bamboo tray, their gently cooked innards topped with various spice mixtures, or sambals. The wok-cooked oyster omelet Ashraf is light and fluffy, the sweet egg flavor juxtaposed with salty, spicy swirls of kecap manis and Sriracha chili sauce under a flurry of cilantro and scallions.
Malaysian food, apparently, makes excellent bar snacks. A few items seem designed to accompany an ice-cold beer or two (there are several offbeat choices on the mostly Asian list, including Hitachino’s new Ginger). Innocuous green mango slices, arranged like Lincoln Logs, turn lethal as soon as they’re dipped into the accompanying bowl of chili, sugar, and salt. Pickles Raja Chulan (julienned carrots, cucumber slices, chopped long beans) combine various flavors and textures on a sliding heat scale. Continuing the pickle theme—the sour crunch seems to be a popular Malaysian motif—watermelon pickle and crispy pork combines cubes of the sweet fruit and its rind with aromatic basil leaves, scallions, and crispy, salty, lardon-like pork nuggets.
There is a whiff of colonialism in the trio of tea sandwiches, but not a shred of British reserve: Crustless Pepperidge Farm white bread conceals spicy sardines, unctuous pork belly, and gamy, luscious lamb with raisin chutney, all slathered with sambal mayo. They are undoubtedly the neatest thing to eat at Fatty Crab, where a Letitia Baldrige–be–damned hands-on policy prevails.
From thereon, dispense with the table manners. Meat dishes are unapologetically messy, from the richly lacquered Jalan Alor chicken wings (sweet, sticky, and not too meaty), to the “fatty duck” (three or four brined, steamed, and fried hunks that defy knife, fork, and chopstick), to the pair of sweetly sauced, gratifyingly meaty Heritage Foods pork ribs.
None of these, though, compare in sheer man-versus-beast slopfest to the Chili Crab—a bowl of deep, murky, bright-red chili sauce out of which several Dungeness legs and three slices of thick toast protrude. At $28, it’s by far the menu’s priciest item, and an awful lot of effort for not much payoff (unless you’re some kind of crab-cracking, meat-extracting maestro). You enter the battle armed with two-pronged wooden picks, extra napkins, Wet-Naps, and something that looks like a nutcracker. But that was insufficient artillery for an elderly gentleman who emerged from behind his table one night after a prolonged tussle. He shuffled out into the aisle and stood gaping at his outstretched, chili-stained hands, like a lost soul who had recently committed a particularly gruesome murder but couldn’t remember how or why, before a waiter intervened and whisked him away to the lavatory.
In comparison, the nasi lemak goes down easy. Toothsome chicken on the bone is the centerpiece of a plate ringed with coconut-flaked rice, cilantro and scallions, peanuts, salty dried-and-fried miniature anchovies, pickles, and a lush, succulent gravy. Another slow-cooked success is the short-rib rendang, wonderfully tender meat in a complexly flavored sauce, its sweet top notes balanced by flecks of chili. These braised, stewy meats outshine the sous vide chicken, which, despite its sweet soy and ginger condiments, seems slightly out of place (as does the phrase sous vide).