La Réunion is a speck of an island some 400 miles off the southeast coast of Madagascar, a part of the Mascarene archipelago that’s also home to Mauritius and, politically, a “department” of France.
If it’s known at all (I had never heard of the place until last week), it’s for its extremely active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, its prevalence of shark attacks (swimming isn’t allowed anywhere that’s not protected by shark nets), its black sand beaches, its 200 micro-climates and its staggering storms. The interior, called the “cirques,” are craters surrounded by heavily forested mountains. Think Skull Island in the Indian Ocean.
Réunion was uninhabited until the 17th century, and today only some 873,000 people live on the entire island, the large majority of whom classify themselves as “mixed race.” Fortunately for us here in Brooklyn, a good number of those Reunion residents are related to Samuel Lebreton who, with his partner in business and life Tara Gruszkiewicz, just opened the gorgeous Maloya on Flushing Avenue, a restaurant and bar that celebrates the cuisine and culture of his family’s homeland.
“We decided about a year-and-a-half ago that we wanted to open a cocktail bar focussing on rums from Réuion, and from the French diaspora,” Gruszkiewicz tells Brooklyn Magazine. “We found this space in Bushwick last spring and we knew it was the right place for us, but the deal was that it had to be a full restaurant. So the menu expanded from there.”
Gruszkiewicz, who grew up in Connecticut and has lived in the city, mostly in Bushwick, for 15 years, works as Maloya’s chef, and spent much of the summer learning the secrets of Réunion’s unique cuisine. “Most of the recipes are from Sam’s family. I’ve cooked with Sam’s mom a lot, and different members of his family — everyone’s related there, he has cousins all over the island — and we went out to every restaurant and roadside stand, and just kind of dove into it all. It’s like French food, but with touches of African and Asian cuisine.”
And, at least at Maloya, it’s also really good. The menu here is packed with hearty fare like Gruszkiewicz’s delicious pork sausages — rougail saucisses — sliced into bite-sized chunks and covered in a zesty ragu. These come with a crock of white rice and your choice of mashed lima beans (which are very good) or lentil stew (which is excellent).
Porky rougail saucisses, which comes with rice and lentil stew, $20 (Scott Lynch)
Other meaty options include boeuf bourguignon créole in a spiced red wine sauce, and braised leg of lamb with Réunion’s massalé spices and tamarind.
There’s fish here too, of course, like a poached swordfish and a delightful plate of pan-seared shrimp swimming in a vanilla sauce. These entrees are all amply sized, but if you want to add to the feast there are sides such as chayote squash, a decadent potato, bacon, and camembert dish called tartiflette créole, and a terrific peanut, tomato, and spicy pepper dip — “rougail dakatine” — which goes well with just about everything.
Camarons a la vanille, which comes with rice and mashed lima beans, $23 (Scott Lynch)
The starters are all very snacky, and it’s easy to imagine just chilling at a bar with a drink or three and nibbling on Gruszkiewicz’s salt cod fritters, or her samoussas, which are triangle-shaped fried pastries stuffed with things like spicy tuna, or creamy cheese, or ham and mashed potatoes.
Assorted platter of popular Réunion snacks, including salt cod fritters, boneless barbecued chicken thighs, and cheese samousses, $19 (Scott Lynch)
And the dessert I had was phenomenal, an incredibly dense and buttery grilled corn cake served with a scoop of ginger ice cream and passion fruit-mango sauce.
Corn cake with ginger ice cream and passion fruit-mango sauce, $12 (Scott Lynch)
The space itself is like a homey oasis, lush with plants, beautiful artwork showcasing Réunion’s flora and landscapes, and punctuated with details like wooden shutters and a type of lacy metal gutters that Lebreton said typically adorn houses throughout the island. Maloya, by the way, is a type of music, and dance, that traces back to slavery and remains dominant on the island. It’s lively, East African-sounding, and it’s all they play here.
One caveat to all of the above: Gruszkiewicz and Lebreton have been waiting on their liquor license for weeks now, so although the full menu is available, only mocktails and other soft drinks are currently being served. “It’s been tough,” says Gruszkiewicz. “The SLA is running really behind. We hired our whole staff but they’re not going to start until we can have our bar scene, so it’s just me and Sam right now. But even so, the Bushwick community has been showing up for us. Everyone who has come through the door has been so wonderful. People are really awesome around here.”
Maloya is located at 983 Flushing Avenue, between Bogart Street and Evergreen Avenue, and is currently open from 5 to 11 p.m. daily. Hopefully the rhum should start pouring any day now.