It began with a pork bun here and a spicy wing there. Now small plates featuring the flavors of Asia are spreading. This winter, two restaurants serving riffs on dishes from Korea, Singapore, China, and beyond opened almost simultaneously: Night Market in Harvard Square and Koy by Faneuil Hall.
Night Market is operated by Ash Chan, who first made an impression on neighborhood taste buds serving liquid-nitrogen ice cream at Churn2. He is the son of Gerald Chan, a businessman who has purchased many properties in Harvard Square — among them the former UpStairs on the Square, which will become a restaurant called Parsnip, currently slated to open in late summer. The family is poised to keep making an impression here.
Night Market might be called DownStairs on the Square. It occupies a basement space that was formerly Indian restaurant Tamarind Bay, hidden in plain sight. The address is JFK Street, but the entrance is around the corner on Winthrop, and signage is minimal. Funky trappings and an enthusiastic young staff make this feel like a real college-town hangout, in a good way. Walls are covered in brick and colorful graffiti murals, and there is a cozy wood bar. The room has a dining nook, a little staircase that leads to nowhere, and tiny bathrooms located behind a curtain and beside a creepy crawlspace. Patrons sit at wooden tables in red, blue, and yellow metal chairs, eating food that roams the continent.
In the hands of chef Jason Tom, good old Brussels sprouts get an infusion of flavor from Chinese sausage and black vinegar. Cauliflower pairs naturally with curry, crisped nut brown and tender. The dish’s description lists panipuri, bite-size puffs of dough stuffed with enticing, brightly flavored ingredients. But this is just cauliflower, tasty enough but bearing no resemblance to the Indian street snack.
Filipino spring rolls are crisp little cylinders filled with a springy, savory mixture of shrimp and pork. The accompanying green slurry, a pesto of green curry and cashews, is a fine foil that could be punchier. But a skewer features three lamb meatballs spiked with just the right amount of cumin, warm and flavorful but not overwhelming.
“Numb numb” chicken wings refer to the workings of Sichuan spice on the tongue; they exorcise the lingering symptoms of a friend’s cold in a few bites. Dan dan noodles lack the same numbing effect, but the pork ragout has a pleasant, creeping heat, and the egg noodles are wonderfully chewy.
Shaky shaky beef is Night Market’s take on the Vietnamese dish bo luc lac, in which the cook shakes the meat in the hot skillet to sear it. Tenderloin nestles between sliced tomatoes and greens in a metal bowl, a citrus-soy marinade adding flavor, a bowl of rice on the side. It’s a simple, satisfying supper.
Toast comes in savory and sweet forms. Topped with fatty pork belly, it’s just fine, but the dish could use more contrast in terms of flavor and texture. Night Market’s version of kaya toast, ubiquitous in Singapore and Malaysia, is better: triangles of toast sandwiched together with dulce de leche-esque coconut jam, to be dunked in a dish of poached egg and soy sauce. The sweet, salty, and rich flavors are compelling together.
Night Market serves beer, wine, and a few sake-based cocktails. A Thai basil mojito is refreshing; the pineapple-sake concoction churning in a slushie machine just tastes like pineapple juice, and is about as intoxicating. Good thing the beer list features Hitachino Nest White Ale, Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils, and more.
Where Night Market takes the roving-backpacker approach, Koy settles in for a homestay. The focus here is Korean food, both traditional and twisted. In the Faneuil Hall landscape of bars, chains, and tourist traps, these flavors couldn’t be more welcome.
This is another family venture, managed by siblings Catarina and Dan Chang and owned by their father, Danny. He is the character roaming the room, asking how everything is and recommending his favorites. On one visit he foists a Korean-ized slider on me: “It’s new! What do you think?” It’s good. The rest of the staff is almost as friendly. Opening chef Sebastian Martinez has departed; running the kitchen is currently a collaborative effort. The restaurant is a long, narrow space decorated in grays and purples, the walls hung with colorful canvases depicting swimming koi and a woman with an intriguingly ambiguous expression wearing traditional Korean garb.
Koy’s version of spicy wings lands sticky, hot, and sweet, thanks to gochujang, a Korean chile paste. Pan-fried dumplings nod to Mexico, with carnitas and queso fresco alongside cilantro and black vinegar. Scallion pancakes are dry and dull.
A bulgogi sandwich is a fantastic idea gone awry. It’s served open face on hot, buttered brioche, seared steak drowning under gooey mozzarella. It’s bland and impossible to pick up. Octopus leg, braised and crisped, is tender and mild; it splays over red pepper salad on a plate dotted with spicy mayonnaise.
Seafood sundubu, silken tofu stew, is as comforting and warming as ever, although it doesn’t have the depth of flavor found in some versions. Master Chang’s chicken is warming, too; crispy chunks of meat are cloaked in a red sauce that radiates chile heat.
There are several takes on short rib — braised in a stew, grilled. The best is the KBBQ galbi, a traditional preparation served with pickled radish, kimchi, and rice. Just as satisfying is the kimchi fried rice, which incorporates the spicy fermented cabbage, egg, and chorizo, for a twist.
For dessert, there is French toast with chocolate sauce, peanuts, crisped rice, and strawberries, gooey, simple, and sweet.
In addition to beer and wine, Koy serves cocktails. The Classy Drunk combines bourbon, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters with a prosecco float, serious and bubbly at once. Soju sangria, with lychee liqueur, lemon, prosecco, and aloe, tastes like Asian soda pop.
More laidback than polished, Koy and Night Market offer a pleasant night out — welcome in their neighborhoods, if not destination dining. They share the landscape with the likes of Myers + Chang and Blue Dragon, East by Northeast and Shojo, Mei Mei and Moksa. Sweet Cheeks chef Tiffani Faison just announced plans to open Tiger Mama in the Fenway, with food inspired by her travels in Southeast Asia, grazing at food stalls. Boston’s plates are perfumed with lemongrass and galangal, spiked with ginger and chiles. At the same time, chefs are embracing the flavors of the Mediterranean — pomegranate and barberries, tahini and harissa, za’atar and mint. A bright future is upon us. Awake, bored palates, and go forth.
48 JFK St., Harvard Square, Cambridge,
All major credit cards accepted.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Hours Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m.,
Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. Lunch Thu-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Filipino spring roll, dan dan noodles,
shaky shaky beef.
16 North St., Faneuil Hall, Boston, 857-991-1483, www.koyboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Small plates $8-$16. Entrees $12-$30. Desserts $9.
Hours Sun-Wed 11 a.m.-midnight (bar until 1),
Thu-Sat 11 a.m.-1 a.m. (bar until 2).
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Spicy wings, KBBQ galbi, kimchi fried rice.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★ Excellent | ★★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.