New York is a city built on diversity. Hundreds of cuisines are represented here, allowing some people to connect with their roots and others to expand their culinary horizons. Pizza by the slice, rich tonkotsu ramen, and chicken tikka masala are ubiquitous to the dining scene.
Yet, several cuisines remain underrepresented. Places to try Burmese tea leaf salad are rare, Farida is one of the few places showcasing Central Asian food, and until 2023, it was relatively hard to find Peranakan food.
Enter Kebaya, chef and restaurateur Salil Mehta’s newest restaurant that spotlights a cuisine mainly found in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia that is influenced by Chinese and South Indian food, among other cuisines.
“We always look for experiences that are missing in New York City’s culinary scene,” Mehta says. “We want to add something different and memorable to the city’s dining landscape, something that will stand out from the rest and excite all types of diners.”
It’s particularly exciting to recognize Mehta’s efforts during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. He’s been a longtime champion of underrepresented Asian cuisines in the city, particularly Malaysian and Singaporean food. In the past decade, he’s opened nearly 10 restaurants across the city, many of which are beloved by New Yorkers. His Union Square spot Laut was the first Malaysian restaurant in the US to earn a MICHELIN star.
Read on to learn more about Mehta and how he put upscale Southeast Asian restaurants on the map in NYC in a big way.
Pivoting to restaurants after a cross-continental move
Mehta was born and raised in New Delhi, India and moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, where he met his wife Stacey Lo.
After a brief stint in restaurant public relations, the self-taught, lifelong home cook decided to lean into a shared family legacy: Lo’s family owned Indian-Chinese restaurants in Queens, and Mehta’s relatives had a Punjabi sweets shop in India.
A trip to Singapore as a child hooked Mehta on Southeast Asian cuisine “I had my first taste of it when I was 12, after having a roti canai in Singapore,” he says. “That meal left an unforgettable impression on me.”
Given the lack of Southeast Asian representation in NYC and buoyed by this shared passion to run restaurants, the couple purchased Laut in 2010. They turned it into a MICHELIN-starred restaurant the following year, and it remains a local favorite today.
Embracing New York City
Though Mehta’s restaurants are inspired by hawker stalls, fine dining, and home cooking in Southeast Asia, the chef has leaned into the city’s reputation for mixing and experimenting with cuisines in playful, exciting ways.
The spicy calamari at his Gramercy restaurant Laut Singapura is served with puffed rice that’s reminiscent of rice krispies. Kebaya’s nasi ulam (a Malaysian mixed herb rice dish) features charred mackerel and a wrinkly metallic fish on the side for show—a nod to the ongoing tinned fish craze.
“Our menus are crafted to appeal to a wide range of tastes and preferences while still allowing us to showcase ingredients and dishes from Southeast Asia that are not as well represented in NYC,” Mehta says.
Showcasing harder-to-find ingredients means Mehta’s restaurants tend to be more upscale, but he’s committed to sharing the diversity within Southeast Asian food.
“There are only two suppliers in NYC for the ingredients we use, so sometimes it can be extremely challenging and expensive to source the exact ingredients we need,” he says.
Leaning on his design background
Mehta says his design background helps him in all creative aspects of his restaurants including the interiors, logos, and tableware—and extends to the food as well.
His Upper West Side restaurant Wau features a noodle dish (WAAAU Noodle) that has a fried noodle suspended vertically from cantilevered chopsticks for a magical, camera-ready effect. Mehta’s Union Square cocktail spot Singlish has a martini with vermouth and salted egg-stuffed olives that sit in an eggshell, a nod to the booming craft cocktail scene in Singapore.
“I create dishes that are unique, flavorful, and approachable to the general public,” Mehta says.
Continuing to push the envelope
The last few years have proved to be banner years for Mehta’s efforts to expand the reach of Southeast Asian and South Asian food in New York City. In just the past four years, Mehta opened Kebaya, Singlish, and Wau, expanded Laut to a second location in Gramercy, and opened an acclaimed kebab and cocktail destination on the Upper West Side, Kebab Aur Sharab.
Mehta continues to push the envelope, frequently updating the menus at his restaurants based on recipes he learns from “various aunties,” YouTube videos, and food blogs. His restaurants often have specials as a way to encourage diners unfamiliar with Southeast Asian food to visit, and his team posts on Instagram to highlight unusual ingredients or flavors in dishes.
Mehta isn’t looking to slow down any time soon. He has a British Indian pub in the works that’s set to open in the East Village later this year.
“A deep passion for the food and culture of the region [Southeast Asia and South Asia] drives me to keep expanding and innovating,” he says. “I am constantly inspired by the creativity, flavors, and stories behind the dishes I serve in my restaurants.”
Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in Brooklyn, where she lives with her wife and rescue dog. You can follow her on Instagram @melissabethk and Twitter @melissabethk