In a little spasm of curiosity, I googled the word “Malabar” before beginning to write this. Turns out, “Malabar” is a Spanish word that means “juggling.” Which is appropriate. This place is, if nothing else, an impressive exercise in juggling, plate-spinning and category-defying. It seems to combine several different kinds of cuisine. It is, or at least was when we were there, one of the quietest restaurants I’ve ever been to. It’s vegetarian, but unlike any vegetarian place I’ve ever been to. And so on.
Because I write restaurant reviews, every so often when confronted with a menu, I get the urge to order the most unusual thing on the menu, simply to see what will happen. This is particularly entertaining in Chinese restaurants, where you can end up with things like scallops with bitter melon if you’re not careful. However, it always produces interesting results, and teaches you a great deal, fast, about what’s going on inside the head of the chef.
Malabar was a perfect setting for that kind of exploration. This restaurant featured things I had never heard of, or considered simply side dishes or oddities as main courses. The sense I got from this meal was of an insanely ambitious chef, who wanted to explore the flavors of his ingredients, and wanted to do this by diving way, way deep into them and creating dishes that expressed that flavor in a way that would make you reconsider what the ingredients will do. If this is a little abstract, hold on – I’ll explain in a minute or two.
Address: 514 Front Street, Santa Cruz, California 95060
Phone: (831) 458-3023
Tuesday through Saturday, noon – 14:30 and 17:00 – 21:00. Sunday, 17:00 – 19:00.
If Malabar has one weakness, this is it. Frankly, I found the place a little depressing. It was incredibly quiet – and not hushed, elegant quiet, but more mausoleum quiet. It felt empty. The floor is concrete, the place is rather dark, and it’s decorated with candlelit arrangements and some fabrics, but the overall impression I got was not cheerful but kind of maudlin.
Decent. The servers knew what they were doing, but in keeping with the slightly depressing air of the place, everyone seemed a little down. This is ridiculously subjective, I know, but it reminded me of that person you know who’s a vegetarian, who runs every day, who drinks a lot of water, but who always seems a little tired.
A good deal -- $70 for two people. Note that Malabar does not serve alcohol, which helps a lot with the cost. Instead, they offer an array of various blended drinks, which are basically tarted-up smoothies. Perfectly good, but nothing, IMHO, you can’t get in a bottle from Odwalla.
The food is really good. It’s a combination of several different Asian cuisines – some Indian, some Sri Lankan, some Vietnamese, and a whole lot of “Look what I can do!” out of the kitchen.
For appetizers we started with spring rolls. These were, like everything else, vegetarian, and consisted of essentially a very small salad wrapped in rice paper and served in a beautiful presentation with a spicy peanut sauce. The sauce was wonderful – most peanut sauces are too sweet, and kind of bland. This had some kick, and was a great combination of sweet and spicy. Everything was raw, by the way, so it was also the opposite of the deep-fried-into-oblivion spring roll you sometimes get.
The second appetizer order was Brussels sprouts. Yes, Brussels sprouts, which were served in another beautiful presentation. These little nuggets are the star of a lot of people’s personal vegetable horror stories, but at Malabar, they’re turned into something magical – a gorgeous little sculpture and a flavor that emphasizes the earthy, rich and strong texture of these things without going overboard.
Entrée # 1 was, unbelievably, sautéed parsnips. See what I mean about the culinary high-wire act? To me, the parsnip is basically an anemic carrot, and something you toss into a stew or a soup as a sort-of filler or sweetener. Here, parsnips had been carefully cut into strips about the size and shape of French fries, very carefully and slowly seasoned and simmered in what seemed like a cream sauce, and served by themselves in a large bowl. They were amazing, and a demonstration of something I’d never seen a parsnip do. That’s a sentence you’re not going to read in a lot of places.
The other entrée was Kofta India. Kofta is a kind of meatloaf or meatball, and given that Malabar is vegetarian, so was this dish – “meatballs” prepared in a kind of spiced gravy. The final result was quite good – no matter what the ingredients, a purely vegetarian meat substitute (I know, that’s a kind of meat-centric way to look at it) can be kind of dry and a little bland, and the gravy was the perfect counterbalance to that.
Incidentally, the rice that can be ordered to accompany these dishes is biryani, which is wonderful also. This could easily be a great meal just by itself, but it’s prepared here as a side or a base. It’s fantastic.
And then, finally, dessert. Beth does not do well with dairy, but in this place, that was not a problem. The dessert menu contained three items. The first was dessert vegetables – sweetened, presumably, but vegetables nonetheless.
The second was a dairy-free lemon ice cream, with a citrus sauces, and the third was a chocolate mousse, again dairy-free, with dates. The mousse is a perfect example of the flavor exploration I was talking about. Because the chocolate flavor is delivered without the richness of dairy, it’s much more intense, and paired with the intense, somewhat-fruity flavor of the dates. The result is a really intense, delicious dessert that doesn’t accomplish its impact simply by hitting you with a ton of butterfat and dairy calories, but by distilling down the essence of what makes chocolate taste like chocolate. The result is incredible, and kind of a revelation.Published On: Tuesday, February 25th, 2014