Ras Plant Based co-owner Romeo Regalli never anticipated that one of his restaurant’s most popular dishes would come directly from his mom.
Mama’s Tofu — a dish of tofu cubes slowly simmered with tomatoes, jalapeños, and a mix of spices — was inspired by a photograph Regalli’s mother sent to him. It depicted a dish she’d just made for his father. “I asked her how to make it, and we did, and it was so good, we added it to the menu,” Regalli said. “It’s now one of our top sellers.”
The other most popular dish at the restaurant? His grandmother’s recipe for missir, a stew of red lentils simmered with Berbere spices that his mother sends to him all the way from Ethiopia, including even the exact same salt his grandmother used to use. “People love it.”
For Regalli and his wife and co-owner, Milka Regalli, their four-month-old restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has always been a family affair. It’s evident not only in the menu, which features Ethiopian recipes from both of their parents and grandparents, but in the very way they met, and started the business all together.
Romeo first met Milka seven years ago when he moved from France to New York City as a recent film school graduate. A family friend took him to dinner at Awash, a longstanding Ethiopian restaurant that opened in New York in 1994. That same family friend suggested Romeo, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, work part-time at Awash — which happened to be the restaurant owned by Milka’s mother.
On Romeo’s first day of work, Milka was his trainer. Seven months after they started dating, they were married. “It was love at first sight,” he said.
Working together, said Milka, has been fairly effortless. “We don’t fight too often. We enjoy working together; it was a good match.”
After they were married, Milka’s mother asked Milka and Romeo to take over the operations of Awash’s Cobble Hill location. Once there, the two had hopes of changing the menu and the name, expanding the style of Ethiopian cuisine served at that location and making it 100%-plant-based.
“We couldn’t change the brand,” Romeo explained. “That’s when we started thinking about opening Ras, our own brand.”
It took them a little over three years to find the right space, a former sports bar in Crown Heights. Construction took a year and finally, on March 7, they opened Ras Plant Based.
Two weeks later, however, they had to shutter the dining room because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In May, however, they reopened Ras with takeout and delivery.
Ras represents Milka and Romeo’s vision for a vegan Ethiopian restaurant that celebrates traditions, but also isn’t afraid to make new ones, from its menu to the graffiti art from artist Ras Terms that adorns the walls.
“It’s a totally different concept from Awash, but it’s still approachable for people who are meat eaters,” said Milka. “The flavors are still classic Ethiopian flavors. We wanted the food to still be flavorful and still stay true to the culture. The idea is to reach new audiences, and try to make Ethiopian food very well known.”
Ingredients like seitan, pea protein, tofu, chickpeas, lentils, and mushrooms are found throughout the menu, served alongside turmeric rice and injera. All produce, Romeo noted, is organic, and the restaurant works with local farms as much as possible.
The brunch menu is where you’ll find more contemporary takes on Ethiopian flavors, like Awaze Chicken and Waffles made with cauliflower, or Fish & Grits, where fried mushrooms tossed in kelp-infused butter take the place of fish. To develop these dishes, Malika and Romeo reached out to Atlanta-based chef Guelila Fornetti, a.k.a.“Vegan Chef Gueli.”
Because of pandemic constraints, the brunch menu isn’t available yet for takeout and delivery, but the Cauliflower Awaze wings are available from time to time.
As Milka and Romeo think about reopening the dining room, they’re looking forward to the day when they can welcome back guests, including Romeo’s parents, who split their time between the U.S., Italy, and Ethiopia.
“They were supposed to be here by now but, because of COVID-19 they can’t travel right now,” Romeo said. “They can’t wait to see this place.”
In the meantime, they’re happy to be back in business and serving the local community. “We’re overwhelmed with the support that we’ve gotten,” Milka said. “We are in total solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; it’s also brought a lot of attention to us, as young Black business owners. That means a lot in the realm of things.”
Resy At Home Specials is a four-week special Resy program featuring exclusive dishes from a handful of top New York restaurants, all available for takeout. This week (June 22-28), the special at Ras is as follows:
Piassa ($80, serves four)
Four dishes: Cauliflower alicha (cauliflower, turmeric, ginger, garlic, jalapeños), minchet abish wat (pea protein, onions, spiced oil, spicy Berbere sauce), dinich wat (potatoes, Berbere sauce), and kosta (lightly braised Swiss chard, onions, jalapeños)