If you're entirely new to Sri Lankan food, you'll feel like an expert after a single visit to downtown's new Curry Leaf Restaurant. Graciously, sisters, owners and Sri Lanka natives Lara Linander and Lana Hillstrom provide a quick bio of the Indian Ocean island on menus and their Web site. In it, they explain the influences from Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, Malaysian and Indian kitchens that have shaped the cuisine's truly unique curry profile.
Typical Sri Lankan dishes fall somewhere between Thai (because of heavy reliance on coconut milk and oil) and Indian (with potato, lentil and meat curries and even a naan-like bread). But immediately after biting into anything at the Curry Leaf, you'll know you're eating neither. Then you'll smile.
Take, for instance, the outstanding chicken curry (available with one vegetable and rice for $7.49/lunch or $8.95/dinner, or just with rice for $5.49 or $6.95). Generous chunks of moist meat swim in a dark coconut-milk broth punctuated by hints of cinnamon and cloves I think. The menu only says "traditional Sri Lankan spices" next to most dishes, and though Linander later showed me half her spice stock, she, of course, declined to reveal each dish's makeup.
Beyond those you'll recognize, like cardamom, turmeric, mustard seed, ginger and garlic, Hillstrom employs spices such as curry leaf (the bay leaf of Sri Lankan cooking); rumpe (dried, cylindrical cut stalks, like lemongrass pieces); and goraka (a black, fig-looking dried fruit that lends recipes a sour flavor). Linander says 21 ingredients form their Sri Lankan curry powder.
In dishes like the coconut sambol salad ($1.95/$2.50), comprised of fresh grated coconut flakes with tiny chunks of chilies, chipped Maldive fish a boiled, smoked and sun-dried tuna produced in the Maldives dominates to create an interesting and pleasing flavor. If I'm correct, the rumpe, curry leaf and possibly goraka were partially behind the delicious, slightly tangy "fish of the day curry," which proved the perfect dip for a side order of roti ($3.95/$5.95), the naan-style flatbread that's slightly thicker and less stretchy, with fine-grated coconut cooked into the middle.
The Curry Leaf defers to medium heat in preparation, but the sisters are happy to bring the fire or tone it down by request. With only an eight-table dining room, they excel at meeting individual needs.
If you aren't opposed to fried foods, start your meal with a sampler of beef, veggie and fish dippers with a mild red sauce ($6.95). I must return to try the lentil chips with mango chutney ($4.95). Also order the Sri Lankan iced coffee $2.50, as sweet and rich as a Thai iced tea with condensed milk and a mystery sweetener, but naturally chocolaty due to the nature of the Sri Lankan coffee bean. Of four dessert choices, we opted to finish with the coconut caramel custard ($3.95), basically a superbly executed flan enriched with coconut milk great idea.
Beyond the food, what's most refreshing about the Curry Leaf is simply that it's here: a new cuisine option for our community. Oh, what we've been missing ...