After Vasantha Perera tried his hand at cooking all over the world, he settled down and opened Andrew’s Café on Aug. 20, 2009, a relaxing, cozy little space on the corner of West 33rd Street and Broadway in Bayonne. The café features a menu of familiar foods without any additives, and exudes the calming environment one would expect to find in a New York City West Village coffee shop.
Fully-stocked tables and leather-upholstered chairs surround the focal point, and giant mirrors give the illusion of a bigger, brighter space without looking too cluttered.
The framed pictures on the wall of the café are exact replicas of the food on the plate, moderately-priced dishes that are no more expensive than one would find in the organic or vegan section at a local supermarket. For non-vegans, there are plenty of dishes that include meat, such as the dinner menu items, as well as the 21 sandwiches for each of the countries Perera has visited.
“The concept, healthy living, is something Bayonne doesn’t have,” he said.
The café’s pink and beige walls are warm and homey, and the sparingly-placed lights above the table allow for an intimate setting. Miniature statues of Egyptian pharaohs, elephants, and Atlas holding up the earth are remnants of Perera’s full life, lived first in Sri Lanka and then all over Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas.
“I wanted to introduce a new concept to the Bayonne area,” said Perera, whose philosophy is “Eat healthy, live healthy.”
Perera is adamant about cooking food with no gluten, salt, or dairy added, and all of the starred items on the menu are organic.
Perera said that even if food claims to be healthy, “Other people say it is tasteless.” Tasteless food was one thing Perera wanted to avoid, and has done so very successfully. Why?
“The concept, healthy living, is something Bayonne doesn’t have.” – Vasantha Perera
Perera’s experiences could fill several memoirs. After he graduated from high school in Sri Lanka in 1985, he said, “I wanted to learn about food.” He studied at the University Centre Cesar Ritz ICHA in Brig-Glis, Switzerland, at 18, and was then contracted to cook at United States military bases in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. He cooked and trained at the military bases and at American embassies, as well as at the Hilton in the United Arab Emirates.
“After working on the bases, I decided I wanted to go to the United States,” he said.
He was contracted by cruise lines like Carnival, Discovery, and Royal Caribbean for six months at a time, and sailed the Atlantic at least eight times while cooking on the ships.
At a food competition in Dubai in 1993, Perera was awarded three gold medals. Afterward, he took on restaurant contracts in Russia to open restaurants and train chefs in cities all over the former Soviet Union, and then all over Europe.
He moved to Florida and became the main office food and beverage manager for hotels in Miami and Orlando, and became a proud U.S. citizen.
Traveling up further north, he cooked in Washington, D.C., for the former president Bill Clinton, who he proudly notes is now totally vegan and has since lost 80 pounds by switching his diet after having bypass surgery.
With a smile that mirrors the one in a framed picture of President Clinton and him, Perera said, “When you eat healthier, you will be like the president. The president is proof that eating healthy is important.”
After moving to Hudson County, Perera worked as a chef at The Point in Jersey City, as well as at Café Bello and the Bayonne Golf Club, where he served as a corporate executive chef.
Perera said, “So much traveling was very uncomfortable. I had to get visas and fly all the time for over two years.”
He decided to open his own restaurant prior to signing his next contract, and found the cozy corner café in Bayonne.
What’s on the menu
Perera said that customers from all over Hudson County, Staten Island, Elizabeth, Newark, Rutherford, and Kearny come in.
“I’ve had customers who walk across two bridges just for the soup!” Perera said with a laugh.
He was also surprised at the amount of younger customers who come in, teenagers and grammar school students with a little extra pocket money who come in to eat the delicious international food.
Perera said he thinks this is very important because, as he noted, “Eating healthy helps you live longer. And if you eat healthy, you will be a success.”
Andrew’s Café offers 21 different soups with no dairy, MSG, gluten or butter added. Perera offers standard soup like chicken and vegetable for $5 for a 10-ounce cup, but there is also asparagus, green lentil, and watercress soup.
With that Wednesday soup special, we recently sampled the stuffed Portobello salad, a grilled Portobello mushroom stuffed with veggies and greens, which came out to $10.05. The gluten-free meal featured a crisp salad with greens, onions, and tomatoes drizzled with a homemade dressing, a puree of extra-virgin olive oil and cashews. Perera hand made both the salad dressing and the veggie patty, stuffed with 18 different kinds of vegetables and held together with a flaxseed blend. The tender, earthy Portobello was fabulously filling.
The soup had a rich, thick flavor with chunks of real squash, and stayed hot throughout the meal. We topped this off with a cup of apple, celery, and carrot juice, which smelled like apple but tasted like a delicious trio of flavors for $7.
A freshly ground cup of coffee was a lovely pick-me-up, and to hear and see Perera making the food himself, quickly and efficiently with all the flair of an international chef, was fantastic.
We sampled the Vietnamese steak sandwich, a change from the standard Bayonne fare of cheesy Italian food or burgers and fries. The tangy ginger soy sauce melded with the thinly sliced steak, and the topping of organic greens and sharp carrot slaw with radish was light and peppery. The organic bread roll was fluffy and filling, and Perera proved that healthy food can be delicious and nutritious.
Perera’s menu also offers everyday specials (on Wednesday it was chicken wings), as well as freshly-squeezed juices. There is the standard fare of apple or carrot but also fresh tomato for $7 and wheatgrass for $5. There are sandwiches from all around the world, like the Russian sandwich featuring tuna and the Irish pastrami, for $10 apiece. The salads are also all $10 with the exception of the avocado and shrimp salad for $11, and Perera is more than happy to add in grilled chicken or fillet of sole.
The dessert menu includes the usuals such as chocolate or red velvet cake for $5 a slice, but there is also sweet potato pie and gluten-free cocoa cake. The dinner menu features the majority of Perera’s meat dishes, with shrimp scampi for $18.99 or lobster ravioli for a dollar less.
Plans for the future
Perera is a one-man show and runs Andrew’s café entirely by himself, especially now that his son is in treatment for leukemia (see sidebar). When asked what he would like to do with the café in the future, he said, “I might offer cooking classes, which people have asked about, and maybe start delivering.”
With the indoor café seating 23 people, Perera also offers two outdoor patios, one in the front and one in the backyard garden, for when the weather allows.
Andrew’s Café is open on Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and on Sundays from 12 to 7 p.m. For more information, call (201) 339-0033 or visit 737 Broadway. Andrew’s Project website is available at www.andrewsproject.com.
Elizabeth Vosk may be reached at email@example.com.
Family affair, family struggle
Andrew’s Café is named after Vasantha Perera’s younger son, now 8. His older son, Kavan, now 11, was diagnosed with leukemia and is currently being treated at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick.
The diagnosis was especially difficult for Perera.
“He stopped eating,” Perera said, and knew it was time to take him to the hospital.
At Bayonne Medical Center, doctors tested Kavan and announced that he had blood cancer. Perera was devastated, but said that since being in treatment, “Kavan is getting much better.”
And he has received enormous community support. “We thank the Bayonne Community News, all the churches, and everyone who stops in and asks about him. Thank you for all the prayers,” he said.
A musical show and several fundraisers have been held for Kavan, all sponsored by generous community members. Perera said that after finding out Kavan had been diagnosed, someone from the community put in a notice about a fundraiser to help with medical bills.