A few months after giving D.C. a small taste of his Malaysian cooking inside a Columbia Heights basement bar, former Maketto and Spoken English chef James Wozniuk is ready to share a broader look at the Southeast Asian country’s cuisine at a new restaurant upstairs.
Makan will begin accepting customers on Sunday, March 8, in the ground floor space above the Thirsty Crow, where Wozniuk is already serving char kway teow noodles, satay, and confit chicken with coconut rice smothered in chile-based sambal sauce.
The menu at Makan will be divided into two sections: starters and nasi campur, which means, “with rice.” To begin, Wozniuk will serve roti jala, a plate of thin, net-like crepes that get dipped in vegan curry. There will be pickles aplenty, including acar — a tart lime pickle with pungent spice and crunch of diced vegetables — as well as sambal with belacan (shrimp paste) and ikan bilis (salted, dried, and fried anchovies).
The nasi campur section will feature Wozniuk’s rendang daging (beef rendang), the first Malaysian dish he ever cooked. Originally an Indonesian dish, the spicy curry is widely consumed across Malaysia and Singapore. Ayam goreng, fried chicken served with salted duck yolk and curry leaves, is sure to attract attention, too. Pajeri nenas, a pineapple curry, may convert diners who are skeptical of putting the tropical fruit in savory dishes.
Wozniuk’s business partner, veteran bar manager Kendrick Wu, is in charge of a cocktail program split into “classics” and “craft.” Classics will include familiar orders with a little twist, like the Gula Melaka (palm sugar) Old Fashioned, or popular drinks in Malaysia like the rum-based Jungle Bird, variations of which will make up a section on the menu called the Bird Cage.
The craft cocktails pay homage to flavors and ingredients of Malaysia. Expect notes of calamansi citrus, green mango, starfruit, and curry leaves. Most of the cocktails will be gin or rum based, although there will be a few tequila and whiskey options. Makan will offer 18 wines by the glass to start, as well as an expansive beer program.
“James’s food comes out hot and heavy as it’s ready, so sometimes you could have five dishes come out in ten minutes,” Wu says, explaining that many drinks will help cut the spice.
Wozniuk and Wu have filled the former Meridian Pint space with wicker chairs, long tables, and basket lanterns. An open kitchen gives customers a view of the two high-powered wok stations Wozniuk had installed. Turquoise sofas and lounge chairs sit opposite a wood-lined bar.
Known for his work as chef de cuisine at Cambodian and Taiwanese cafe Maketto, Wozniuk says a research trip for that job sparked his fascination with Malaysian food.
“I was flying to Hanoi [for research] but I found a weird flight with a 15-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur,” he says.
He figured the detour would give him an opportunity to try chili crab, a signature Singaporean dish that smothers whole crustaceans in a sweet and spicy tomato-chili sauce. He says his first encounter with the famed dish was less than stellar, but everything he found and ate after that was “a revelation.” He planned his second trip soon after his first. Then there came a third. And a fourth. During each trip, Wozniuk arrived with a notepad, a pen, and a camera.
“Everything was very new to me, and a lot of stuff is out in the open,” he says, describing the street hawker stands. “I would be watching the food get prepared, down to the order of the ingredients going into the wok. I was trying to get as much out of it as possible.”
Wozniuk would add to that information by scouring cookbooks and Youtube videos, anything that would give him an insight into the best way to extract more flavor from ingredients. He impressed Lao chef Seng Luangrath, of Padaek and Thip Khao fame, by asking her about fermenting fish sauce. Once she saw his commitment to studying traditional preparations, she became a mentor and cooking partner.
Wozniuk loves how many of the influences he was already learning — Cantonese, Hakka, Indian, Laotian — find their way into the food.
“You see all those styles with the incorporation of Malay ingredients,” he smiles. “Everything just melds really well.”
Finding the right ingredients is still a challenge that’s led Wozniuk to strike up relationships with purveyors across the Mid-Atlantic. He remembers trying to make substitutions for ingredients like Malaysian shrimp paste with Thai shrimp paste, but the adjustments never felt right.
“You could definitely tell the difference,” he says.
Malaysian restaurants are rare in the D.C. area. Aside from Malaysia Kopitiam, which closed in Dupont five years ago but recently reopened out in Centreville, Virginia, there isn’t an option dedicated solely to Malaysian cuisine in the area. So when Wozniuk surveys his dishes, he gets wistful.
“Maybe people will come in here, eat, and then go out there and take a trip to Malaysia,” he says. “Maybe they’ll fall in love, like I did.”