Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Asian Fusion: Malabar and Asian Rose come together.
Exotic spices and ambience abound in these newly wed eateries
By Denise Vivar
"... you touched
your belly to my hand
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon peeler's wife. Smell me."
The allegory of Sri Lanka's colonization, related as a seduction of a woman in Michael Ondaatje's The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife, speaks of the allure of this small country's treasure of spices. Sri Lanka has long attracted foreign interest--its nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and cardamom have brought traders from all over the world as far back as 2500 B.C.E. Happily for us a bit of Sri Lanka has settled here in a new home on Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
The Malabar and the Asian Rose have combined their enterprises to form a new restaurant called, well, Malabar. The original cafeteria-style lunch buffet of the Asian Rose has been supplanted by the sit-down lunch of the new Asian Rose. Fans of the old Asian Rose will still find their favorites on the lunch menu, while the menu of the original Malabar has been expanded to include some new fare for dinner.
Arriving between sunset and a rain squall I was greeted by a stone elephant bearing lit candles stationed near the entrance, as well a large bowl of floating candles and flowers. Candlelight licked the pale yellow walls and cast a warm glow while a large fresco of the Buddha's face serenely floated on the wall. I joined my friend Darren who had been seated in the already very full room. Surprisingly our server approached us almost immediately for our order. I stated that I was not quite ready, and with reserved surliness he left us to peruse our menus and wait for his return.
The all-vegetarian menu has an exotic and impressive array of options among small plates, soups, salads and entrees, as well as an interesting pasta section (do they eat gnocchi in Sri Lanka?). I fantasized that I was sitting sheltered under a canopy in the monsoon of Sri Lanka as I sipped on my refreshing fresh lemon-grass and mint soda ($3.50), while Darren enjoyed a very sweet raspberry lemonade ($3) and we navigated the evening's offerings.
We eyed the coconut, pepper and sweet onion-filled bread, but couldn't pass up the classic organic baked paan ($3.25), a flatbread that was satisfyingly warm, chewy and served with a heavenly melted ghee (clarified butter) and garlic. It was also nearly gone by the time our aloe tikka ($4.75) arrived. The three lofty potato patties were delicately flavored with a little cayenne bite and accompanied by a mound of arugula atop tasty meandering rivulets of tamarind sauce, mint chutney and cashew curry.
Darren quite liked the Malaysian corn soup ($4) while I would have enjoyed more of the coconut and lemon-grass flavors. My Thai ginger salad ($7) was delightful--with a surprise of fried yucca shoestrings straddling the organic greens and slivers of fresh ginger throughout. The plum ginger dressing was well balanced and tangy, though the greens were more generously dressed than I prefer.
I indulged in the pistachio korma ($11), a stew of mixed vegetables and greens swimming in a rich pistachio cream sauce redolent with cardamom. Darren chose the Sri Lankan platter ($10) which is perfect for the indecisive appetite, or for when you want a little of everything. It included five small portions--tempeh, tofu, chickpeas, potatoes and pineapple, each cooked with its own curry sauce. A bamboo steamer filled with sticky rice accompanied our entrees.
I have favorite dishes here already but feel compelled to explore some I still haven't tried. The appealing presentation, generous portions and upscale menu, coupled with the very reasonably priced dishes make Malabar a must-try and a must revisit.
Address: 514B Front St., Santa Cruz
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-3pm Mon-Sat, dinner 5-9pm daily.
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