Malaysian Persuasion

Acclaimed chef Zak Pelaccio’s new venture isn’t what it seems

Zak Pelaccio is perhaps best known around the Hudson Valley for his work at Fish & Game, an upscale tavern in Hudson that showcases the Valley’s bounty through exquisitely executed, à la carte offerings and farm-to-table feasts. This is not without good reason: The seasonally driven cookery is so fine that it won Pelaccio the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast this spring. But industry folks know Pelaccio once earned his chops developing the Southeast Asian flavors highlighted throughout New York City’s Fatty Crew hospitality group, and ultimately putting Malay-inspired tastes on America’s culinary map.

As such, the chef had media all a-buzz last June when his newest edible endeavor seemed to promise diners casual Malaysian meals and Eastern-influenced snacks at a spot just up the street from Fish & Game. 

Called Bakar, in reference to a Malaysian cooking technique, it’s an expansion of BackBar, a cocktail bar Pelaccio and his partners (Michael Davis, Patrick Milling Smith, and Kevin Pomplun) took over on Warren Street. Its setting is fun and funky: The operation sits between an odd antique shop and some permanently parked food trucks, the kitchen is miniscule, and 90 percent of the seating is composed of outdoor picnic tables. The food is high quality, and portions are small “snacks,” more affordable in comparison to his Fish & Game offerings. Its earned good reviews so far. The trouble is, the menu isn’t exactly what the critics kept clamoring about. 

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“I’ve been wanting to open a casual sort of lightly-spicy, Malay-inspired bar-food place for a while,” says Pelaccio, “but this is only a faint nod to Southeast Asian. There’s nothing technically accurate in calling it Malaysian.” 

The cuisine at Bakar is more concerned with being fun and “commitment-free,” while sourcing as many local products as possible. Menu offerings do include some Asian-influenced snacks, like crab curry and spicy pork laab, but guests can also try fried chicken or local herbs and greens. “They keep saying, ‘Oh! Pelaccio is cooking Malaysian food!’” the chef says. “[They’re] excited that I would be going back to a cuisine that I once focused on and developed. But this isn’t hardcore in any ethnic connection.” 

What Pelaccio really seems enthusiastic about is the location’s alcohol program. Cocktails are made to order using Valley produce, the wine list features only all-natural selections, and they focus on serving local beer. The bar is also equipped with coolers to ensure drinks are served at the proper temperature. “[We’re] working on delivering a product in the condition it’s meant to be served,” says Pelaccio. “It went from being a funky, divey sort of bar to a funky, large divey bar that’s not as divey. And I think it’s good.” 

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