The last time I dined at the only-in-Santa Cruz landmark Malabar, it was in the company of university colleagues hosting the world’s leading vegetarian and animal rights activist, Peter Singer. Every dish served and prepared by Malabar founder Raj Weerasekare was a knockout. Singer proclaimed it his best vegan dinner ever.
Last week, we arrived early in order to grab a table at the small, minimally decorated dining room—still a landmark of extraordinary Asian fusion and South Indian dining after decades in several Santa Cruz locations. Bloodless dining is the rule here, where all of the menu is vegetarian, and much of it vegan. No alcohol, no meat.
Spice-intensive and custom-prepared, the food offers tastebuds a Disneyland of sensations, attractively presented and loaded with unexpected detours into spice combos rarely encountered anywhere else. But up front, let me say that diners must be prepared to be patient. This is intricate food. It takes time to make, and the owner seems reluctant to delegate. Service last weekend was leisurely to indifferent on our recent visit, with a single entree brought to our table twice.
The noise level throbbed, but amid the din we enjoyed a duo creating a moodscape of world music in the background. The dim visual environment doesn’t begin to do justice to the cuisine. Partnered with sparkling water—the menu’s creative fruit and coconut drinks are sweet enough to overwhelm savory entrees—we began with a shared pear salad ($7.50). Arranged on a long platter were bouquets of frisée and baby arugula, tiny cherry tomatoes plus pear sliced paper-thin across the circumference of the fruit. The effect was quite beautiful, pale green “rings” of pear cushioned by boisterous greens. The salad was dotted with toasted sunflower seeds and tossed in a delicious mango powder and citrus vinaigrette. The place was fully packed by the time we finished our salad, and it was obvious on a Saturday night that the kitchen and lone server (other than Raj) were stretched to the max.
One entree finally emerged, an exceptional Kofta India ($11.50) and a copper bowl of tasty brown rice. This dish of classic kofta dumplings was the finest I’ve ever tasted. Fat dumplings of green pea and cashew arrived in a rich tomato coconut curry dotted with thin bits of carrot and roasted fennel, topped with a sprig of fresh cilantro and loaded with complex spices. A thrilling dish, it shows off why Malabar has held its place in local hearts all these years. A second entree followed, again ablaze with complex spicing. Vegetable Korma ($13) is a deluxe presentation of just how sensational vegetables can really be. Topped with golden slices of fried potatoes, the dish’s cashews, squash, carrots, green beans, pistachios, and raisins were enfolded in a curry glowing with the spice heat of cloves and cardamom. The word “wow” comes to mind. The house signature dessert ($7), brought to table by Raj himself, is a cocktail goblet of brilliant vegan ice cream (made by the owner’s wife) dotted with candied black cherries and mandarins, topped by a plume of chocolate. Made of coconut and other nut milks, the ice cream was outstanding and the presentation beautiful.
If you require, or simply desire, meat-free dining options without wine and beer accompaniment (though a liquor license may be on the horizon), Malabar is your spot. And not just in Santa Cruz. Were it not for the noise level, and oft-casual service, this restaurant could hold its own anywhere in the country.
Dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. 514 Front St., Santa Cruz. Reservations for parties of eight or more.