I wanted so badly to like Chomp Chomp, Simpson Wong’s new restaurant on Cornelia Street. First there was the name, which you could either love or hate. After a little while, I loved it. It was fun to talk about: “Where are we going tonight?” “We’re going to Chomp Chomp!”
Chomp Chomp is named after a popular food hall in Singapore, and it purports to have the same cuisine: “Singaporean hawker food,” as the menu says. Ultra-cheap, and variously salty, sweet, fatty, and smoky, this cuisine is currently one of the hippest in the fervid American foodie imagination. One of the main reasons is Anthony Bourdain, for whom I also have mingled feelings of affection and loathing. Bourdain, who joked on TV about “beating a prostitute to death,” has popularized the cuisine in at least three different episodes of three of his different food shows, and is getting ready to open a huge Singapore-style hawker center on Pier 57 in the meatpacking district in 2017.
The people of Singapore live under an authoritarian government that censors art, especially queer art, and prescribes two years in jail for gay male sex, but a large minority gets to eat well. At hawker centers, where succulent tidbits cost only $2-3, middle-class and wealthy Singaporeans come to chomp gazillions of passionate meals a week.
By all accounts, it’s lip-smacking stuff. Mixing the cuisines of Singapore’s diverse ethnic strands — Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, and even European — these food palaces serve up a roast duck here, a dish of chicken wings with shrimp paste there, a bowl of silky rice porridge fish and bean curd somewhere else, and it’s easy to see why people would enjoy going from stall to stall to eat this food. Most of the dishes are traditional to Singapore, Malaysia, and India. Although some say the quality of the meals has been threatened by the high rents the government has begun charging vendors in the hawker centers it forced them to join decades ago, Singaporeans who can afford the grazefests love them.
This is the model to which Wong is paying homage in the West Village. Yet his own Chomp Chomp isn’t a hawker center, but a fairly expensive restaurant where dinner for two with drinks will easily set you back a hundred bucks. But I was hopeful about Wong’s take on it because the chef’s three previous eateries have been highly regarded by critics. Here’s the sad news: just like at Smorgasburg, Brooklyn’s own chomp-chomp food fest, most of the dainties here aren’t worth it.
There is some good news: pasembur, a small Malaysian salad of cucumber, mango, shrimp fritters, tofu, egg, and cuttlefish sambal ($7.50), had an extraordinary overall flavor that was completely new to me. I kept wanting more of its addictive vegetal, buttery, sweetish, salty taste, like lettuce that had somehow become enthralling. And Arab-Indian murtabak, a roti filled with minced beef (you can also get it filled with vegetables, both $9) was warm, fragrant with spice, and fatty. Karen and I loved it.
I enjoyed some of my nasi lemak, which is one of my favorite Malaysian dishes: a mix of different bites surrounding coconut rice (here, chicken curry, lamb rendang, anchovies, peanuts, hard-boiled egg, and sambal, $14). The meat of the lamb was glistening and fresh, and it came in an utterly satisfying red-brown sauce with subtle and complex spicing. I wished there were more of it on the plate. The coconut rice and its accompaniments were nice but unthrilling, and the chicken curry didn’t taste like much.
Something more grievous was at work in the “cereal prawns” ($9), which is actually a traditional dish in Singapore even though it sounds like something Christina Tosi from Milk Bar came up with on acid. I love shrimp with their heads on, and these were covered in a breading made of breakfast cereal and curry leaves: it sounded great to me. When I bit in, I couldn’t taste the cereal at all, but the shrimp body tasted okay if dull. The head, however, was unspeakably nasty, like eating medical waste. I figured I’d just got a rotten shrimp and tried another head — medical waste, again. Karen tried some, too, and each head tasted spoiled. (Shrimp connoisseurs say the heads go bad much quicker than the bodies.)
Credit where credit is due: Wong gets his shrimp wild and local, and though rotten, these were not among the large percentage of shrimp in American restaurants and supermarkets that is farmed by slaves in Thailand.(In case you haven’t heard, two recent in-depth reports by the AP and the Guardian found that most of our shrimp, including some in Whole Foods and Costco, is processed by Burmese and Cambodian slaves in Thailand leading lives of utter misery.) In a telephone interview, Wong said that his shrimp paste doesn’t come from Thailand, either, but Malaysia, where he himself hails from.
So yay for ethics at Chomp Chomp, but profound demerits for flavor. On another visit, I smelled the seductive scent of fish sauce coming from either side of us as we sat down, and immediately wanted to order what our neighbors were having: char kway teow, a beloved Singaporean dish of wok-fried rice noodles ($14) “with clams and shrimp,” the menu said. Alas, we could not detect a single clam or shrimp in the dish, or even (once it was in front of us) the smell or taste of fish sauce, much less the soy sauce and chili the dish is traditionally made with. It tasted like a well-fried plate of Chinese noodles, but bland and completely innocent of funk, spice, aromatics, condiments, or proteins.
Lobak, a Malaysian festive appetizer-roll made here with chicken (“five spice chicken and taro root wrapped in tofu skin,” as the menu describes it, $8.50), was puzzling and rather frustrating. The homemade chili plum sauce it came with was on fire and delicious, but the pieces of chicken roll themselves were perfectly mushy and tasteless (where was that five spice?).
On our second visit, the restaurant was hopping, because the New York Times critic Pete Wells had that very evening put Chomp Chomp’s oyster omelette ($12) on his list of the best dishes of 2015. But Wells seems to have had a very different omelette than the one I did. His was “doused with chili vinegar sauce” as the menu promised, but I couldn’t detect any in mine. The only spice I discovered was off to the side, a small mound of grated garlic. But as for the omelette itself, it was impossible to tell the oysters and the eggs apart either visually, texturally, or by taste. The whole thing tasted like a single plate of frilly plain omelette, vaguely interesting but simply not that oomphy.
Apart from the pasembur, the only dish at Chomp Chomp I’d be passionate to try again was the asam fish ($15), hake in a sour, homey, complex, and spicy sauce made with tamarind, lemongrass, shrimp paste, and chili. Since it was the only main-course protein I’d gotten so far, I figured maybe Wong and his cooks made a practice of shooting their wad on the entrées, and ignoring noodles and appetizers. I determined to order the main-course size lamb rendang ($17), since I’d adored it in the nasi lemak. But as an entrée, the lamb was overly salty and had lost its balance of spices. It badly needed more spice, period. I got bored halfway through.
On the side, though, were deep-fried “herb croquettes” that took me back to the time I lived in Coney Island as a 12-year-old. Coming home from school, there was the smell of wonderfully unhealthy, deep-fried goodness, of oil used many more times than it should be, from the various dirty stands across from the subway. These croquettes (mostly breading and potato, with a little bit of herb) made me wish I was back at Nathan’s and the other vendors in the Coney Island of 1976. They were delightful.
The atmosphere at Chomp Chomp is lovely, too, with antique wooden Chinese doors over the walls, framing the low-lit room. It’s full of happy people expecting something exciting, indulgent, made just for them, special bits of stuff that will electrify them. Some of them (the customers from Singapore or Malaysia) are also expecting something nostalgic, wonderful, that they can’t get anywhere else in the city. Unfortunately, as with so much yuppie eating, this emperor has no clothes. If you want Singaporean and Malaysian food, go to the much cheaper Laut on East 17th Street.
Chomp Chomp, 7 Cornelia Street near West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue (chompchomp