At Romeo and Milka Regalli’s Crown Heights restaurant, vegan proteins stand in for meats, and tangy, fermented injera soaks up sauces spiked with traditional berbere spice or puckery lime.
By Hannah Goldfield | The New Yorker
Many of the recipes that the chef Romeo Regalli uses in the kitchen at Ras Plant Based—the restaurant that he and his wife, Milka, opened in Crown Heights in March—have been passed down through generations. A number of them came from Romeo’s grandmother, a passionate home cook who died last year, in Ethiopia, at the age of a hundred and four.
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Yet the dish that seems most likely to have a long, storied history, Mama’s Tofu, traces its origins only as far back as May, when Romeo’s mother texted, from Addis Ababa, a photo of what she had made for dinner. “I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, that looks so good!’ ” Romeo recalled the other day. She rattled off the ingredients: tofu, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños. After she mailed him a batch of her homemade spice mix (the exact contents of which he keeps tight to his chest), Romeo made an approximation, and promptly added it to the menu.
The story behind Mama’s Tofu reflects the restaurant’s ethos: dynamic, adaptable, rooted in but by no means bound by tradition. Romeo and Milka, who were both born in Ethiopia, met while working at Milka’s mother’s Ethiopian restaurant, Awash, on the Upper West Side, and had long wanted to open a place of their own, with a vegan menu.
Although meat figures prominently in Ethiopian cuisine, vegan dishes are common, too; for more than a hundred and fifty days a year, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians abstain from animal products, in accordance with religious fasting. The couple wanted to both feature their favorite fasting dishes and rejigger typical meat preparations with substitutes like crumbled pea protein, to “cater to those who are trying to transition to a vegan life style,” Romeo explained.
Ras Plant Based was up and running for all of a week before the pandemic forced the Regallis to close the dining room they had worked so hard to get ready, commissioning colorful murals and arranging patio-style furniture for a breezy al-fresco vibe. Cutting back on staff and shifting to takeout meant paring down the menu and reducing their hours. They have recently added limited outdoor seating, but a playful brunch menu, offering cauliflower wings and waffles and Ethiopian breakfast classics, remains on hold for now.
Even in an abridged form, Ras is an exciting addition to Franklin Avenue’s ever-bustling restaurant row. Flaky sambusas (the Ethiopian equivalent to what’s called a samosa in South Asia and elsewhere), stuffed with either lentils or chopped cabbage, onion, and bell pepper, come two per order. As soon as their slightly honeyed, deep-fried scent hit my nose the other night, I knew that I should have added at least a half-dozen to my takeout cart; that thought was confirmed after I dipped them into Ras’s glossy-red awaze, a saucy paste usually made with berbere (Ethiopia’s national spice mix, which includes chili pepper, ginger, basil, and fenugreek) that here releases a balanced, slow-building heat.
For a cold dish called fitfit, house-made injera—the porous, slightly sticky national flatbread of Ethiopia, made from a deliciously sour fermented teff-flour dough—is torn into pieces and combined with tomato, onion, and jalapeño, all doused in a puckery lime vinaigrette. More injera, rolled into squishy cigars, to be unfurled for scooping, comes with a vegan sampler platter, which showcases an array of fasting dishes, including missir, long-simmered red lentils complexly layered with more of the secret spice mix (I picked up cardamom), and fasolia, a slick tangle of string beans and carrots slow-cooked until silky and sweet.
In two iterations of tibs, for which beef is usually both fried and stewed with onions and berbere, the meat is replaced by seitan and cremini mushrooms, respectively, the former bearing a texture as satisfying as pork belly, the latter with an earthiness enhanced by sprigs of rosemary. Both are wonderful sopped up with more injera or with turmeric-stained steamed rice laced with fresh black pepper. Both are worthy of ancestral legacy—and how lucky we are to be welcomed into this family.
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