“Perfect love,” sings out the counterperson, a slight young white man with a frizzly beard, oval granny glasses, and a kente-cloth cap pulled down to his ears. He smiles, folds his hands together in a namaste-style greeting, and makes a quarter-bow. His accent is faint and unidentifiably European, but he speaks in sing-song tones reminiscent of Jamaican patois.
There’s no doubt that Ital Calabash is a Rastafarian restaurant — or as the menu puts it, “an African Jamaican Vegetarian Food & Juice Explosion!” Like the awning out front, the restaurant’s walls are painted yellow, red, and green. Photos of Haile Selassie and Bob Marley tile their surfaces.
Lisa Appleberry, a former attorney with a passion for vegan cooking and herbalism, opened Ital Calabash two years ago. The restaurant is connected to Forty Days and Forty Nights, a botanica at 4040 Broadway that offers meditation and spiritual circles and sells candles, incense, essential oils, and self-help books. Ital Calabash is in some senses the physical manifestation of the botanica’s focus on spiritual transformation. “We’re trying to promote a change in people’s lifestyles in the way they eat.”
Ital food, which comes from the word vital, is the name given Rastafarian cuisine. (The use of the capital letter I in words symbolizes the divinity within oneself.) Ital food is as fresh as possible, never canned, and absolutely free from preservatives and other chemicals. Some Rastas eat fish; many do not. Some even eschew the use of salt, preferring to enjoy the food in its purest state.
Some, but not all, of Ital Calabash’s food is prepared according to strict Ital guidelines, says Appleberry. But it is all vegan. A long list of fruit smoothies takes up most of the restaurant’s tiny menu, and is accompanied by a small column of veggie burgers, hot dishes, and a couple of sides. There’s no real kitchen to speak of, just a few devices for chilling, warming, and whirring up the food.
None of the smoothies contain sugar or milk; some sweeten the mix up with maple syrup, and some get beefed up with soy milk, lecithin, and protein powder. All have cute Jamaica-themed names. True to the spirit of Ital cuisine, most taste more like fruit than the yogurt or sorbet that other smoothie chain stores use to brighten up and sweeten their smoothies. You’ll still get the sugar buzz, but your teeth won’t ache afterward.
The mild and milky Smoothie Reggae (pineapple, banana, coconut, soy milk, maple syrup) tastes mostly of banana, which Ital Calabash uses to thicken most of the smoothies and make them rich and creamy. A lack of the fruit was felt in the weak Ethiopian Eve (strawberries, passion fruit, pineapple, lemon juice, apple juice), which might taste better now that summer is bringing out the best in the berries. Both Nature’s Delight (banana, papaya, peach, apple juice, protein powder) and the Jamaica Soon Come (passion fruit, mango, banana, guava) had a cheery tanginess and big tropical fruit flavors.
Along with the smoothies, Ital Calabash blends up a few of the traditional Jamaican beverages, such as sorrel (similar to jamaica, or hibiscus, agua fresca found in many taquerias) and ginger beer. The restaurant’s ginger beer was perfectly pitched. Delicately sweetened with maple syrup balanced by a squeeze of lemon, it was fragrant with cinnamon and allspice. The ginger heat tingled in the back of the throat and all down the esophagus for quite some time.
The other specialty of the house is Osha’s Bliss Burger, a tofu patty ground up with carrots and mild seasonings. As far as vegetarian burgers go, it’s not a bad one: softer and looser than grain-based patties, more comfortable with its tofu-ness than Boca Burgers. It’s swathed in ketchup and set between two lightly toasted whole-wheat buns. Other variations are topped with soy cheese or avocado and the house ketchup. A thick slice of roasted eggplant crowns the Buddha’s Queen Burger, lending its unctuousness to the patty.
The homemade ketchup that smothers the Bliss Burgers has predictably little sugar, but the acid of the tomatoes doesn’t take over. It’s hard for me to tell what else might be in the ketchup, because like almost all the other dishes, it is made without salt. I don’t mind the pleasing blandness that results, but like most people who have worked in French-style kitchens, I find that salt is the focal point for my palate. It brings all the subtleties of the other flavors into the nose. (Which is not always a good thing: The reason many people find restaurant food salty is that less experienced cooks taste season a dish based on just a half-teaspoon taste, not considering how the saltiness builds up in the mouth over several mouthfuls.)
The lack of salt also affected my “healing soup experience,” revealed to be a thin lentil-y broth, like a bland mulligatawny, with chunks of vegetables and couscous. Its saffron hue came from turmeric, which also dyed the eggless quiche, a foamy, smooth tofu batter poured around broccoli in a crunchy whole-wheat crust.
Although Ital Calabash hits you over the head with its Jamaican-African heritage, none of the seasonings in the main courses tasted distinctly Jamaican. Even the Negril Jerk Burger was coated in a version of the ketchup perked up with allspice, ginger, and a hint of chile heat. That lack of oomph didn’t affect the most Jamaican dishes on the menu, the side of fried plantains and the brown rice and peas cooked with a little coconut milk and turmeric.
Defined on the menu as “meatluss substance,” the No-Meat Treat turned out to be good old chunks of textured vegetable (soy) protein — made in-house, according to Appleberry — braised in a sweet, smoky sauce halfway between a curry and a chile-free barbecue sauce. It came with the rice and peas and a salad of shredded dino kale and julienned red peppers dressed in a vaguely acidic vinaigrette.
Ital Calabash offers two other main attractions: smoothies and charm. The first will delight any fruitopian who, like me, has found other commercial smoothies too sugary and dessertlike. The second is even more rare. On my second visit I watched a counterperson, working solo, beguile an overcapacity crowd of lunching suits without speeding up or stressing out.