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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Mmmm, Gado Tumis!: Wok'd seasonal vegetables, tofu and fragrant spices served with peanut sauce; no black and white photo can do justice to this dish.

A Vegetarian Oasis

Malabar coaxes the downtown crowd to experience the joys of Soquel Avenue

By Selene Latigo

The 1100 block of Soquel Avenue is gradually evolving into a kind of downtown expansion, with recently opened businesses beginning to draw more and more people into the area. We were among them one recent evening, attracted by one of the many diverse dining destinations along Soquel Avenue: Malabar.

The restaurant is sparsely decorated with a modest yet sophisticated touch. Pale sage hues and iridescent details adorn the walls, while each small table is graced by a single rose and one tea light. The clean line of the counter draws your eyes back toward the kitchen, where the female cooks converse happily, filling the space with warm voices instead of background music.

We were seated and handed paper menus, featuring small plates on one side and large plates on the other. Malabar and Asian Rose, its sister downtown, are completely vegetarian and most items on the menu can be prepared vegan as well. They use olive oil for cooking and feature local organic produce in a wide variety of Sri Lankan dishes infused with fusion flair due to the chef's European training. For example, on the long list of small plates there are classic items like pakoras, vegetable satay sticks and Sri Lankan spring rolls, as well as unique offerings such as Camembert fritters with passion fruit marmalade, or the baked goat cheese salad with truffle oil, lemon juice and cumin. The entrees provide an array of traditional curries, dumplings and wok'd dishes as well as interesting alternatives like the baked homemade raviolis.

From previous visits we knew for sure that we couldn't miss out on the house-baked pan with vegan ghee ($3). We also wanted to try a bowl of the dal with spinach and vegetables ($3.25). These arrived one after the other, a perfect combination to enjoy together. The bread was hot, yeasty and tender, with just enough chew. Dipped into the golden ghee with chopped garlic was pure decadence. The dal, although on the cool side, was presented with a beautifully colorful mix of lightly steamed vegetables in the center. Cumin, black mustard seed and cardamom, to name a few, were layered subtly, creating a simple yet involved flavor wheel.

We were still reveling in these first two dishes when our entrees arrived, so we reorganized our table to make room and dove in. The baked vegetable ravioli with fennel, hazelnuts, spinach, portobello mushrooms and black mission figs with truffle oil and parmesan ($9.50) sounded amazing on the menu but fell a little bit short upon tasting it. All of the ingredients were crafted well, but seemed disjointed, not coming together in a unified way. Perhaps if some of the items were blended into the winter squash ravioli filling, this dish would become more harmonious.

We also ordered the Sri Lankan Platter ($8.50), which provided a wonderful way to experience several more traditional dishes at once. Four different curries were displayed around a mound of tender rice, coconut greens and pappadam. My favorite was the chickpeas and mushrooms in a complex tomato sauce. My spice recognition is often humbled by the myriad of techniques used in this type of cuisine. Levels of coriander, hot pepper and rosemary were the flavors I came up with, although I'm sure there were more. Another excellent item for which I would return for a whole plateful is the kofta, a green pea and cashew nut dumpling in a creamy curry sauce.

We were thinking of ordering one of the many enticing beverages, such as the saffron banana lassi, avocado faluda or Malabar chai, but our server set down the check before we could inquire about other dessert possibilities. Feeling a bit rushed but mostly full of the rich, nourishing and intricate foods, we opted out of pursuing a sweet ending and left.

The reasonable prices, vast selection of inventive and generously portioned dishes and serene ambience make Malabar a good choice when searching for a healthy and novel dining experience. I will continue to come back here, trying more of the Sri Lankan classics as well as the popular Sunday night dinner special. Malabar is on more reason to visit this developing section of Santa Cruz. Let's enjoy it before the next tourist season does.

Address: 1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.423.7906
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; dinner 5:30pm-close Mon-Sat
Price: $3-$9.50

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From the September 7-14, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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