A Crown Heights soul food and pan-Asian jewel from alum of Saltie, Pok Pok, and Milk Bar is expanding to a place that most New York restaurants don’t — Africa.
Tamra Teahouse opened last January at 1524 Bergen St., between Schenectady and Utica avenues, serving a mixture of curries and teas. Chefs and partners Yunha Moh and Draman Berthe, who met at now-shuttered Thai hot spot Lucky Bee, are first-generation immigrants from Korea and Mali, respectively, and the menu reflects that. Curry — a common thread in east Asian, African, and West Indian cuisines — is a centerpiece of the menu in dishes like lemongrass oxtail curry and butternut squash curry with beets and daikon. “Teahouse” refers to the menu’s medicinal Korean teas like jujube and corn silk, served with rose simple syrup, and dinner finishes off with a complimentary sikhye, a traditional Korean sweet malted rice beverage. Biscuits sandwiches are available as well, a nod to Moh’s childhood in Georgia.
Since then, the 34-seat, all-day restaurant has been filled largely with locals. Moh and Berthe are roommates, and all the staff, including the two chefs and front-of-house manager Farah Millien, who was born and raised in Crown Heights, live within four blocks of the restaurant.
But soon, the cafe will also be opening in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Berthe is moving back home after 20 years in NYC, opening an international outpost which will be in a hotel that his brother has played a role in building. The restaurant will be on the ground floor.
While it might seem like a leap, the duo sees the new Tamra Teahouse as a natural progression of their ethos of creative, mostly vegetarian fusion fare. Tamra Villa Deux, the Mali hotel and restaurant complex, will use the same menu and recipes as the Crown Heights original, with room for small ingredients changes, subject to what’s local. Moh will remain a partner, but Berthe will handle all in-person operations in Bamako.
“Curry is originally from Africa, but there’s so many different curries all over the world,” says Berthe. “There’s no Asian-style in Mali, so I’m excited to bring it there.”
Moh — who started his cooking career at Milk Bar before moving on to restaurants like Saltie, Pok Pok, and Llama Inn — did not initially set out to open a restaurant. But he felt an ongoing need to combat the lack of healthy and affordable options in the neighborhood, with longtime locals in mind.
“My family lived in a lot of food deserts growing up, where there’s a lack of access to good, affordable food. But I was still really surprised coming to America and seeing the offerings, particularly for families. In Korea, we’d get free lunches at school and it was kimchi with rice that was plentiful, healthy and free,” he says.
Then, Berthe and Moh, who quickly became friends while at the Lucky Bee, clicked over similar immigration stories and a shared passion for the ways in which food can add to a community, though neither has formal culinary training. In 2016, the duo began working on pop-ups, building a presence in the neighborhood; the push to move the teahouse concept into a permanent space came after coming in second place for Brooklyn Public Library’s PowerUP! Contest that year.
Everything — from the casual design to familiar flavors to the under $15 entree prices — is intended to make the space approachable to people living in the immediate area, while providing a healthy alternative to the abundance of fast food nearby. The duo hope Tamra Teahouse will be a place where parents can come to after work with their kids and not feel “guilty” about letting them pick from the menu, they say.
The owners are acutely aware of the responsibility with their business to set the tone for how new restaurants engage with the longtime community, particularly as a they launch their second location in Bamako.
Tamra Villa Deux will reside in the neighborhood of Kalabankoro, which Berthe says is a rapidly developing neighborhood, more so with the recent addition of a soccer stadium that just finished.
“So Tamra will be a restaurant that will serve the local community but also appeal to new residents and international tourists and expats,” says Moh. In some ways, it’s not so different from Crown Heights.
Emma Orlow is a writer for Eater, Grub Street, Architectural Digest, LA Times, Saveur, and more.