Masak, an East Village restaurant that opened in August, is Singaporean-born chef/owner Larry Reutens fine dining spin on traditional hawker fare from his Southeast Asian country. That, like the rest of the country’s cuisine, is derived from a mélange of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Nonya flavors, and at Masak, Reutens adds both an American sensibility and French techniques.
Reutens does not want Masak, which means “to cook” in Malay, to be pigeon-holed as an authentic Singaporean eatery. The casual 40-seat eatery is meant to serve as both an neighborhood bistro and a laboratory where the chef, who used to work for Visa in business development, can let his imagination run wild, melding his Singaporean heritage with his Manhattan restaurant kitchen experience. He moved to New York eight years ago and did his formal culinary training at The Institute of Culinary Education on 23rd Street, honing his skills at Aquavit, The Tasting Room, and as the executive chef at Alias. He defines Masak as “very much an expression of myself.”
For example, Reuten infuses his creations with both French methods of preparation and the spices of his homeland, braising a Beef Shin Rendang, a thick curry with Malay spices, with house-made cornbread and kale and turnips, instead of simmering it as it’s traditionally prepared by the Malays. He says he hesitates to cook “straight Singaporean food” such as hainanese chicken rice and the like, “unless it’s so awesome it can stand on it’s own.”
“I try very hard to make pairings that work,” he adds, “and that make sense when you eat them.” One creative result is the popular Quih Pie Tee, a bite-size traditional delicacy re-imagined as a crisp, dainty pastry shell filled with ingredients such as foie gras with strawberries and corn or crudo of arctic char with ginger crème fraiche. Reuten likens the delicate Quih Pie Tee shell to a “taco or burritos, which you can stuff with anything you want.”
By the same token the cocktails by mixologist Jeremy Hawn use kaffir lime leaves and ginger syrup, ubiquitous Singaporean flavors for beverages. Patrons can also sit by the eight-seat bar and sample snacks like “Emping Crackers and Belacan sauce” (shrimp crackers and a fermented chili shrimp paste) or sweet and spicy Chili Crab Dip with mantou, or fried buns, to accompany the drinks. (The bar decor is influenced by Reutens’ heritage too: The black and white shutter blinds that are hung above it were flown in from Singapore; they’re a nod to the colonial 19th century homes built when the island city was a British colony.)
And Briar Winters, the pastry chef, does Malay and Chinese desserts with French influences, such as the Tang Yuen dumplings paired with roasted peanuts and chocolate ginger ice cream with cocoa nib crumble. Traditional the Cantonese serve tang yuen, a glutinous rice dumpling simply in a sweet ginger soup. Reutens collaborates with both Hawn and Winters to “take [Singaporean flavors] to a whole new place.”
Reutens and his kitchen are also very conscious of the seasons, and the chef peruses the Greenmarket three times a week. Currently, beets, turnips and radishes take center stage on the menu, as seen in the subtle, aromatic, herb-flavored fish sausage called Otak Otak, which is served with a radish and apple salad. A few weeks back, The Condensed Milk Cake was dotted with tiny strawberries. Now it’s raspberries with roasted coconut. As one of their most popular desserts, he and Winters have been experimenting with alternatives of apples and pears once the berry season ends.
He hopes the balance doesn’t just please his American clientele who don’t know Singaporean cuisine, but also to satisfy his clients who do. “My approach to cooking is refined,” explains Reutens, although “the intention wasn’t to make Masak refined” but rather, he says, to cook Singaporean food with top-quality ingredients and his own approach.