Malabar makes the best vegan or vegetarian food in the Bay Area and was the highlight of my summer.
People assume the best vegetarian food in the Bay Area must be at a place like Millennium in San Francisco, Encuentro in Oakland, or Gather in Berkeley. That assumption is wrong. Malabar beats them all in terms of creativity, taste and sheer value (of course, one could debate whether Santa Cruz is still part of the "Bay Area" but I choose to include it).
The restaurant itself is simple and elegantly decorated. It's low-lit, romantic and zen. The service is friendly and prompt.
We started off with an eggplant dosa appetizer, as well as a vegetable roti (both ~$7 each). The vegetable roti was simple and tasty, but not overly memorable. The eggplant dosa, however, was spectacular: a sublime mixing of a perfect dosa crepe with silky eggplant and a variety of fresh chutneys (peanut, coconut and one other). This was truly one of the best and most unusual dosas I have ever eaten, and I have eaten hundreds of dosas around the world. Leave it to a Sri Lankan vegetarian restaurant to take things a notch above.
For our main courses we had an okra curry (~$12) and a khoti roti (~$12). Both are authentically Sri Lankan dishes. The okra curry was just great---a savory dish of fresh, whole okras in a coconut curry made with turmeric and other spices. It's a simple dish but a great one. The khoti roti is a Sri Lankan street food (basically thin pieces of wheat bread chopped and baked in a curry base with vegetables and spices) and, while this dish came out well on a whole, I've had a better version elsewhere. That said, it was still respectable and worth ordering, especially as only a handful of restaurants nationwide actually make it.
We also shared a mint lemongrass soda (~$4) which was refreshing, crisp and house-made. I really love how Malabar cuts no corners and does everything from scratch.
When we asked about dessert we were told that they'd run out for the day. But the owner of the restaurant later came to our table with a complimentary apple-raisin "tart" that he just whipped up on the spot. He graciously and generously gave it to a bunch of tables. The tart was excellent: flaky, sweet but not too sweet, and full of different textures.
We also got a home-made chocolate soy chai (~$4) which didn't blow me away, but had some appeal.
I quickly grew tired of the vegan options in the Bay Area as most of them are just Asian mockmeat joints, and the others (Millennium, Herbivore, Gracias Madre, etc.) try too hard and fall flat in terms of taste and quality.
With Malabar around, I can't totally write-off the Bay Area. Indeed, Malabar made my summer and I can't wait to return.