Sri Lanka Restaurant (Minneapolis, MN)
Sri Lanka is a reincarnation of the old Sri Lanka Curry House. Many of us have strong memories of that old beat-up restaurant, which closed when Uptown's rents took to the skies. This updated version is smaller and more refined: earth tones on the walls, indirect lighting, chunky square and triangular plates. And there's no more of that old "nosebleed hot" food; this version is not as hot.
The best things on the menu are the appetizers. For the tastiest dinner, order them all to share, two dishes per person. You'll get coriander mussels, fresh and tasty morsels stir-fried in a rich coriander and cilantro sauce. You'll get chutney scallops. These come stir-fried with leeks, onions, spinach, and tomato chutney. They're intense without being overpowering, sweet-and-spicy without being sickly. We love "sugar is a spice" cultures. The scallops came on a bed of red cabbage leaves, which we ate just to finish off the sauce. We suggest an order of rice to sop up every drop. You can also order squid in the same sauce; that's appetizer number three.
The fourth appetizer is a combination platter: two beef cutlets, two lentil patties, and two chicken wings. Most of this stuff is just a vehicle for the sweet-and-spicy orange sauce. We found the small and slightly mealy balls of beef to be uninteresting, but the crunchy flat lentil patties were a nice counterpoint to the sauce, which was utterly fantastic with the chicken wings. Actually, forget what we said about ordering all the appetizers: just order a mound of these chicken wings and a side of rice, and gorge.
If you must have entrees, stick to the fish curries. Don't expect Indian curries. The Sri Lankan version is lighter, using native spices like green-curry leaves, chilies, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin. The ocean lanka is the best dish we've found: fresh fish and shrimp stir-fried with vegetables, and a happy note of horseradish. The fish curry is also good; the night we were there it was halibut, mixed with vegetables and a hint of mustard and lime.
We had worse luck when we strayed to the meat dishes. The beef mallum was stir-fried with vegetables and served over rice and covered with spiced lentils. The shredded beef was sparse but nicely spiced, and there was nothing actively wrong about the dish; it just wasn't very interesting.
All three of these dishes were cooked with the same vegetables. Yes, it was interesting to eat kankun, a long thin hollow vegetable also called, um, "hollow vegetable." But the same long beans, mushrooms, spinach, and onions on every dish was boring and repetitive.
The vegetable roti had more vegetables, but was the worst dish of the lot. It's a mixture of broccoli, carrots, onions, mushrooms, long beans, kankun, and cashews, wrapped in a piece of thin gummy Sri Lankan roti bread (called gothambara) and served with a ladle of lentils on top. We really expected intense vegetable flavors and interesting spices, but were disappointed. The two other vegetarian dishes, the vegetable noodles and the vegetable special, tasted more or less the same. Do you want your vegetables with or without eggplant? In a roti, mixed with noodles, or over rice?
On the plus side, all of these dishes considerably improved by the plate of spices our waitress brought. There were two: a searingly hot chili-tomato paste that reminded us of pico de gallo, and a more mild paste of chopped coconut with chilies and vinegar. And order a side of home-made raisin chutney; it does wonders to keep the heat down.
Dishes come mild, medium, hot, and very hot. We ordered most everything medium, and found them unexciting. Hot was hot, but not fearsome. (Calibration: Taco Bell "hot" sauce is not hot to us.) And dishes are large; figure that three dishes will feed four.
Sri Lanka has a small wine list, but nothing that paired well with the food. Order a beer, or one of their exotic fruit shakes. Woodapple cream isn't on the menu, but it's the best drink in the restaurant. Properly called divul, it has the nickname woodapple because of its hard shell. The divul tree grows in Sri Lankan forests, and elephants like it. So will you; it's cold and sweet and tart, and the creaminess will fortify you for the hot food. Or buy a can at an Asian market; blend one part woodapple cream with three parts vanilla Häagen-Dazs and serve.
Sri Lanka's service is somewhat better than the old Sri Lanka Curry House. Back then, owner Evan Balasuriya refused to share his recipes, and did all the cooking himself. Now he has hired some alternate chefs, and the kitchen has sped up as a result. Although we've heard reports of multiple-hour waits for food, we didn't find our waits longer than any other restaurant. Maybe you just have to go when it isn't crowded. And even though the menu says that a 15% tip is included for tables of five of more, you are not obligated to pay it. We've heard stories of people, after hours of horrible service, being told that the tip is mandatory. There's no such thing. If it is printed on your bill, you have the legal right to cross it off. And if you've waited an hour and a half for your dinner, you have the moral right as well.