In the end, it didn’t really matter what Jake and I had decided after our deep contemplation of Malabar’s menu of original, wholesome-yet-exotic vegetarian dishes, salads and appetizers. With each selection, Raj Weerasekare squinted his eyes, appearing to study our very appetites, and steered us toward something he thought we would enjoy more. By the time Weerasekare whisked himself away to the kitchen, we had figured out that he is also the chef and founder at Malabar, and we sat back with excitement and growling bellies for what was to come.
As it turns out, Malabar is not only the place to come for vegan, vegetarian, plant-filled dinners of Sri Lankan and Asian persuasions, but also the place to come if you’re in the mood to follow the chef’s lead. We were happy we did. On this early summer night, the knife- and alcohol-free dining room was peaceful, and the notes of a live singer traveled through the expansive dining room flecked with hand-painted lotus flowers. The summer season always picks up after July 4, says Weerasekare, especially with international tourists who read about the place on Yelp.
The Roti Paratha ($7) arrived first, steaming-hot and scrunched, Singapore style, into a flaky pastry-like blossom. “Eat it with your hands,” our waiter/chef instructed, and we dug in, tearing off pieces of the fried bread—crispy on the outside and tender inside—and dipping it into the aromatic galangal curry sauce.
We found ourselves unable to resist repeating the action again and again, so it was with great relief that the next to-die-for appetizer arrived when it did. Also the chef’s recommendation, the Catalan croquettes ($6), were fried ever-so-lightly, resulting in a thin, golden brown skin around the hearty potato filling, which included spinach, the sweet pop of black raisins, and just enough Gorgonzola to render the filling creamy, without overpowering its flavor. All of this was offset by the refreshing relish of pickled green papaya and mustard. Score.
“I used to make this one with pine nuts,” says Weerasekare, who changes the menu often, but this version has been on the menu ever since a a visiting couple from Spain shared the family-restaurant recipe with him.
Two entrees followed: the Lotus Root Kofta ($11.50), with a sauce of cashew, coconut, and white poppy seed curry that was both delicate and rich, inflected with cardamom and just a tiny bit of cream—the perfect match for the small round lotus root, apricot and potato dumplings it hugged. This is one of those dishes that appears small, but packs a filling punch.
And finally, the Brinjal Basil ($11.50, vegan), a colorful celebration of the nightshade family. This mound of wok’d eggplant, seitan, mixed peppers, basil, and red and orange cherry tomatoes, warm in their own ripe juices, is tossed with a sweet, Chinese-leaning sauce and topped with crunchy cashews, fried red onions, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It was as delicious as it was beautiful, and as Jake said, it’s a dish that tastes like summer. A bowl of steaming brown rice played a wonderful supportive role. Needless to say, we left satiated—and with leftovers—and promised to come back for the dosas, which come with a rainbow of different sauces, in several variations—a decision we’ll absolutely leave up to the chef. Malabar is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5-9 p.m. 514 Front St., Santa Cruz. 458-3023.
On Going Nuts
The journey to find Earth-friendly alternatives to meat and dairy is littered with sometimes repelling experiences of flavor and texture, which is why I was thrilled to find the vegan coconut cheese Chao, from the Seattle-based company Field Roast, as delicious as the real deal. The slices, which are seasoned with a traditionally fermented soybean curd called Chao by the Vietnamese, melt to perfection in quesadillas and are equally delicious in grilled cheese with heirloom tomatoes. $6.49 for 10 slices at local stores, including Staff of Life, Aptos Natural Foods and New Leaf.
Cashews can also work miracles: have you tried soaking them overnight and blending them into a ricotta-cheese reminiscent ecstasy? Add herbs of your choice—basil and dill are tried-and-true favorites—a lemon zest hint, and a bit of nutritional yeast for a cheesy kick, and you’ll be well on your way to vegan pasta dishes. It’s also delicious as a spread on flat breads or as a healthy dip for raw veggies.