Brooklyn’s heart beats in its restaurants. And right now, with its eateries spilling out onto the sidewalk and into parking spots, waiters weaving through passers by, the joyful buzz of dinner conversations warming the pavement, it feels like Brooklyn is wearing its heart on its sleeve. Nowhere is this warm, fuzzy feeling perhaps more apparent than at Ras Plant Based in Crown Height. There, the bold flavors and bright mood enhance the glory of the streets coming back to life.
But let’s be honest: When Ras opened in early March 2020, just as things started to get weird and dark, I didn’t think a new vegan, Ethiopian restaurant stood a chance. I’m happy to say I was totally wrong, and now, they’re perfectly poised to thrive in a city where places like Eleven Madison Park, one of NYC’s most highly regarded fine dining destinations, is going meatless.
Ras, which translates to “prince” or “duke,” serves hearty, beautiful food that’s fun to eat, with a warm, welcoming spirit. And that’s no small feat when half the guests are sitting in parking spots on Franklin Avenue.
Super-friendly staffers, bright environs, and juicy cocktails make it work. Our chatty server smiled through her mask, a potted succulent sat on our table, and a jungle of houseplants grew up through the aqua-painted structure that sheltered us from the traffic on a recent evening—while greenery suspended by macramé hung overhead.
The Captain Regalli cocktail, named for Ethiopian-born chef, Romeo Regalli, makes a fine way to start a meal, blending tropical notes of pineapple with bourbon, lemon, and agave. The Berbere Walker, a refreshing mix of fresh orange juice, Johnny Walker Black, and Luxarado Maraschino was served over ice with a sprinkle of berbere spice and a big spring of rosemary.
Like the drinks, the food doesn’t hold too tightly to Ethiopian tradition here. The mashed avocado appetizer isn’t all that different from the guacamole you might order at Chavela’s across the street, but at Ras, it’s served with chips of toasted injera, the slightly sour, spongy, Ethiopian flatbread meant to scoop up vegetables and stews. It pairs well with the sambusas, which are accompanied by a little bowl of thick, sweet-spicy, slow-burning hot sauce. Hold onto it after you finish dipping the savory, mixed-vegetable and rich-lentil sambusas, both of which are wrapped in flaky pastry and offer a preview of the unexpectedly deep flavors to come—be sure to get one of each.
The menu reads like a green-market shopping list, barely suggesting the roller coaster of tasting notes it entails. Even when you see all the sautéed vegetables and stews, served in little round heaps atop long, thin pieces of injera, the edges cut in waves, it’s hard to imagine the depth of flavor until you take a bite. The Mercato platter, for instance, offers a sample of five items, including fasolia, described as string bean, carrots, and caramelized onions. The menu doesn’t mention that the vegetables are braised until they reveal their essence—a deep, addictive sweetness.
The gomen, listed as braised collards and sautéed onions, is slow-cooked to distill the comforting qualities of the greens, with a soft bite of bitterness and an undercurrent of aromatic herbs. The missir is described as a slow-simmered lentil stew with fiery berbere sauce, but was more complexly spicy than straight-ahead hot, redolent of cardamom, coriander, and perhaps fenugreek.
Unlike the platters, the entrees involve larger helping of a single plant-based dish, centered on mushrooms, tofu, seitan, or pea-protein crumble. The mushroom tibs, thick-cut and juicy, showcase their innate umami flavor with just a whisper of rosemary and jalapeño.
As we scooped up the vegetables and stews with ripped bits of injera, loud laughter bubbled from the tables around us, and Lauren Hill sang through the speakers to the pedestrian parade on Franklin Avenue—the couple with the matching gait and coordinating waist-length dreads, the sauntering packs of teens in cropped, wide-leg jeans, the quick steps of a Corgi on a long leash, the slow roll of an empty stroller guided by a toddler who has been cooped up long enough. This is the Brooklyn I missed. It felt as though we’d arrived at a welcome home party, where everyone was a guest of honor—and even the vegans were happy!
Ras Plant Based is located at 739 Franklin Ave., Crown Heights; (718) 622-6220.