The Better Than an Entree Appetizer

Jean asked me where I wanted to go for our date last night, and without hesitation I picked Cafe Asean. It’s one of my favorites (cheap and GOOD), and they have a very romantic yet unpretentious little candlelit courtyard, and that was just what the beautiful, body-temperature-perfect evening called for.

This was my first visit to Cafe Asean when their courtyard’s frosted glass roof panels were retracted. Once seated, I looked up and gasped at the beauty of the night sky glowing through the branches of the massively tall tree that sprouted right from the corner of the room. I’d sat right up against its trunk before and never known it was so huge!

Cafe Asean Courtyard


The main reason I was here tonight was to get my chai samosa (I call it wet samosa) fix. Each order comes with two triangular bundles of vegetables wrapped in tofu skin (bean curd) and smothered in spicy coconut sauce.

I didn’t see it on the menu, and then our cute, bobbed waitress confirmed it: no more chai samosa. EVER. Well, she said it in a much nicer way, but I was still crushed.

Being too besides myself with grief to pick another appetizer, Jean ordered the Ca Bam: monkfish parcels ($8)- something I never would have picked. I think it’s the monk part. Sounds too much like muck. Murk. Spunk. Whatever – I wanted my wet samosa!

The past few times I’ve gone out to eat, other people have picked the best dish on the table. I’m going to let that become a new trend in my life. (Another newbie: eating Asian food with a FORK! It feels so wrong, yet so right!)

Our appetizer was anything but muck.

Diced monkfish, crunchy veggies, thai basil and peanuts in a sumptuous, slightly sweet, dark brown sauce were served with a side of lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, and a disk shaped shrimp cracker. We each picked a lettuce leaf, scooped up some fish, topped it with a cucumber slice, and ate it taco-style.

The fish had a meaty flavor – the kind that comes from brief, high temperature cooking – and was nicely accented by hints of coriander and tangy citrus. The addition of the cracker was like a swimming pool next to the beach. Not necessary, but why not?

The monkfish was EVEN BETTER than chai samosas! Jean said it was like kung pao chicken on steroids, but I thought it was more like kung pao chicken on an Indonesian island getaway wearing nothing but a sarong.

Once the waitress cleared the plates, we got nervous. How could you possibly follow-up something like that?

The lemongrass-crusted snapper on a bed of crisp green beans we shared was delicious, but as predicted, outshined by our (now) superstar-status appetizer. But we did become entranced by the sauce drizzled over the fish: a creamsicle-colored coconut lime sauce. We began sopping it up with bites of fish, green beans and forkfulls of rice at an alarming rate, so I asked for more.

It took a little while, and as we sat, hungrily eying the sauce-depleted food in front of us, I realized it was because they were making it FROM SCRATCH. Talk about love! This is not the kind of place where they just pop open a can of curry and dump it over some defrosted, long-deceased sea creature. This is the real deal. Real, as-in “hey chef, I wanna hug yo momma” real.

We finished off the date in Washington Square Park, enjoying the early summer air, lack of NYU students (sorry), and a slice of vegan chocolate cake we picked up at Gobo. Theirs is a paradoxically good, yet healthy-tasting concoction. What lengths would I go to for the recipe? Would I scale a building? Probably not. Drink a whole bottle of hot sauce? Maybe.

As we sat there, a guilt-free slice of heaven between us, and a live, accousic version of The Time Warp playing nearby (intermittenly accompanied by a profane shouting match between a man and a woman accross the park) it was clear: we’ve got it pretty good in this town.

Cafe Asean

117 West 10th Street, Btwn 6th & Greenwich Avenue

West Village



*UPDATE* This dish is not called monkfish parcels. “Parcels” is not part of the name, that just happened in my head somewhere between ordering and writing about the food I ate. 🙂


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