Saturday, January 21, 2012

JR's Taste of Ceylon


This Sri Lankan restaurant is near the corner of Knight and Kingsway. The area isn't exactly classy, so I didn't have much expectation when I walked in. There was no one there apart from a couple of people playing with a baby (note the baby chair in the picture below), but they weren't eating and were probably the owner's relatives or friends. Ok... so it was a Tuesday night, but not even a single table shortly after 7 pm? It wasn't until we left at around 9 pm that another couple walked in for a late dinner. A man whom I assumed to be the owner greeted us with menus and a friendly smile.


We tried 3 different drinks in total: (from left to right) ginger tea ($1.50), authentic Sri Lankan style milk tea ($1.50), and mango lassi ($3.99). The ginger tea and milk tea (or coffee) are usually complimentary with the meal, but we had to pay because we used a deal voucher. Both teas were made with the same tea leaves, but one was steeped with ginger and the other infused with milk. I found the ginger tea a bit weak since I'm accustomed to a more dominant ginger kick. (My mom makes spicy Chinese ginger tea all the time.) I found the milk tea very nice and satisfying though. It wasn't strong like HK style milk tea, but it was smooth and tasty. The mango lassie was a lot smaller than I had expected for the price, but every drop of it was pure goodness. It wasn't crushed with ice or watered down; it was thick and creamy yogurt blended with fragrant mango. It was probably mango syrup instead of fresh mango since the fruit is not in season right now, but still the drink was delicious!


We spent a long time poring over the menu, mainly because we had no idea what most of the items were. I've heard of dosa and rotti, but what's a hopper? Iddly? Pittu? Kotthu? It would have been nice if there was some sort of description on the menu. Then I wouldn't have had to ask the owner about every single item. But I have to say, he was very patient and tried his best to explain. I remembered having biriyani at another Sri Lankan restaurant and knew it to be a fried rice dish, so I ordered it for familiarity's sake. The chicken biriyani ($10.99) came with a dollop of yogurt and a hard-boiled egg. The rice was soft and slightly wet with a nice flavour, but the egg was cold and overcooked.


Now I haven't had a lot of dosas in my life, but this masala dosa ($6.99) was by far the best one I've had. The dosa (pancake/crepe) was very thin, slightly crispy and incredibly tasty. The curried potato and veggie filling was perfectly spiced with a light savouriness that went well with the dosa. The dish was served with sambal (on the left) and sambar (on the right), 2 very different condiments with very similar pronunciations. The sambal was made with coconut shreds (pol sambal) and chili pepper, and it was very spicy (at least for me). The sambar was a mild stew of lentils and other veggies.


I thought the bowl of mutton curry ($6.99) looked small, but there was actually quite a bit of meat in there. The curry sauce was very fragrant and the meat soaked in the flavours quite well. The texture of the mutton could have been a bit more tender, but it was not bad as it was. The owner recommended an order of plain rotti ($2.50) to go with the curry. The rotti tasted exactly the same as the Malaysian roti canai. In fact, I think they're the same thing since this rotti is called "rotti channai" in the menu. Sounds similar right? Anyway this fluffy pancake was executed nicely with flaky and buttery layers.


I finally found out what hoppers are firsthand. Hoppers, also known as appam, are bowl-shaped pancakes made with fermented rice flour. We wanted to try all the different flavours available, so we got the hopper platter special ($11.99) with (from right to left) 2 plain hoppers, 1 egg and 2 milk. I was really impressed by the presentation because I had never seen anything like it before. The bottom of the hopper was about 1-2 cm thick with a soft and pudding-like texture, while the edges were paper-thin and fried to a crisp. The crispy part didn't have much flavour, but the soft part was sour due to the yeast fermentation. My favourite was the milk hopper because the fragrant and slightly sweet coconut milk complemented the sourness really well.


The dessert of fried bananas and ice cream ($4.59) was perhaps the least impressive dish. It didn't taste too bad, because really how bad could fried bananas be? But the ice cream was probably from Costco and the barely visible batter was hopelessly soggy. It was basically like eating warm mushy bananas with a thin layer of soft dough. It was still satisfying and comforting, but I'll probably pass next time.


I was pleasantly surprised that the food here was above average. I'll admit that part of the reason I enjoyed the meal was because of my inexperience with Sri Lankan cuisine, so most of the dishes were relatively new to me and held a novel appeal. But objectively speaking, the food was cooked well and served with decent presentation for a small family-run restaurant. The service was very friendly, albeit not very professional, but that was part of the charm. I plan to come back sometime and try some of the other dishes.

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