The only thing more delightful than the warm, neighborly atmosphere inside the new pastel-painted Roti Shop on Foster Avenue is the fresh, homecooked food.
In December, we announced what looks like a restaurant renaissance coming to Foster Avenue. And the first to open its doors is Beharry Cafe & Bar, offering home cooked Caribbean fare from chef and Guyanese Brooklynite Monica Beharry.
And since her two-hour soft opening last Wednesday, word is spreading fast. “This is the best Roti around, it’s fresh and fluffy. Even better than Sybil’s,” said one customer while digging in to the vegetarian roti. “And trust me, I know — I’ve been searching!”
Beharry, who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of New York, has a fine dining background, but she chose to serve Caribbean fare because of her cultural roots, she said. But cooking is her first love.
“In Guayana, you start cooking and helping in the kitchen when you’re just 12 years old,” she said. “Since I was a little girl I always wanted to have my own restaurant.”
By 10am this morning, before the cafe opened, customers were popping in to make requests: Potato salad and green rice (which has spinach and coconut). One man came in to rave about the rice special — the quality, spices, and taste were all exceptional.
The new restaurant at 1715 Foster Avenue between East 17th Street and East 18th Street, opened in the former home of La Crepe Et La Vie, which was shuttered last year for operating with an expired food permit.
The place was a mess when she first signed the lease, Beharry said. But with patience and perseverance, she rebuilt it with her own labor and can-do personality.
“It’s been hard, but this is a perfect opportunity for what I want. I have to follow my destiny,” she said.
And echoing her kind spirit, the cafe is already inviting. “I’ve always loved the color purple,” she said of the pastel highlights that enliven the cafe.
When I went in for lunch I ended up lingering and talking to neighbors, who were all raving about the food.
What makes her roti shop unique so far seems to be the fresh ingredients and creative menu choices, influenced by both her childhood in Guayana and her culinary training.
She uses a signature blend of fresh, toasted spices rather than a pre-made powder; she makes her own roti bread (or skin) at least twice a day in small batches, which is how she cooks all her food. “It’s home cooked food that’s healthy and fresh,” she said. “I don’t use rubbish.”
Beharry plans to solidify a basic menu, and supplement with daily specials that harken back to her family’s Sunday dinners in Guyana — like curry chicken curry and dal, and cook-up rice, which is red beans cooked with meat, spices, coconut milk, and fresh herbs.
Beharry chose Ditmas Park because she knows it — she lived on Cortelyou Road for 20 years and has seen dramatic changes in the neighborhood over the years.
Her initial idea was to open a fine dining restaurant, but while she was fixing the place up, neighbors came by requesting Caribbean fare. Even after opening day, her attitude is to remain flexible and adjust the menu and hours based on requests.
So far, the Shrimp and chicken roti have been the most popular, so I had to taste. But to my surprise, Beharry brought out a second plate, too — the egg curry special. “It’s not on the menu yet, it’s what I made for my lunch,” she said.
And the curry turned out to be the star of my meal. It came with hard boiled eggs, crisp on one side and yellow from the turmeric-based curry; with soft potatoes, brown rice, and drizzled with fresh parsley.
The curry was flavorful and delicate, accentuated by the starches on the plate; every bite of potato, rice, and egg was rich and curry-soaked.
While flavorful, it wasn’t too spicy for my mild (AKA wuss) palate. There was a nice kick of energy, but not so spicy that I couldn’t taste the individual flavors in the dish.
Beharry has big plans for her roti shop — like adding a bar, and a bakery (baking is another one of her passions). She’s also like to serve breakfast, adding some options like omelet wraps, smoothies, and porridge.
I’m excited to watch this homegrown restaurant flourish on Foster Avenue, and echo another satisfied diner one table away: “My mind is telling me yes, but my stomach says ‘I’m full'” he said, staring down his half-empty roti plate. “But not to worry, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Check out Beharry Cafe & Bar (bar coming soon), 1715 Foster Avenue between East 17th and East 18th Streets, open at 11am.