The Spice Channel

Sri Lanka Restaurant
3226 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; (952) 926-0110;
Hours: Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.; brunch Friday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

There was a time--and I can just remember it if I screw up my brow, dim the lights, and light an aromatherapy candle made with stale beer--when Uptown was cheap and sort of dingy, a scruffy bohemia populated by lots and lots of kids with very little money. Those years might have been scroungy, but the neighborhood was more prominent nationally than it is now. It seemed like everyone knew the place that birthed the bands that birthed a movement that had no name. And everyone knew the strange restaurant with the insanely spicy food at the heart of it: the Sri Lanka Curry House. I mean, it was one of the only restaurants in Minnesota to make it into Let's Go! USA, for Pete's sake. By the end of the 1980s, it was like a Café des Artistes for a broke generation. Want to hear an inside joke? In 1990 Money magazine called it one of the best 90 restaurants in the country.

Of course, time passed. Leaves fell in autumnal splendor. A few civic-minded folks tried to put the leaves back, but they wouldn't stick. Uptown got a name. That name was "alternative." More time passed. Indeed, it was enough time for a radio station to arrive, and endure, on the theme of "Alternative Classics." That's time. Meanwhile, people traded in their guitars for Filofaxes, to the great bewilderment of the folks at the stationery stores, who were forced to busk for spare change. Uptown became a great place to study the world's finest tequilas, buy ergonomic can openers that resemble balloon wiener dogs or ersatz French Beaux Arts patio furniture in the style of Poussin. And the Sri Lanka Curry House bit the dust.

Michael Dvorak

For a while, people would venture up to the dark plate-glass windows on Hennepin Avenue, and tug forlornly at the large wooden sun that made the restaurant's door handle. No luck. Eventually civic-minded folks stuck the handles to trees, and that did away with that. It seemed like the place would drift into memory. Mind you, some of the memories were as painful as a flamenco dancer's furious dancing on your stuck-out tongue. Aside from the vengefully hot food, Sri Lanka Curry House was renowned for taking so long to serve food that diners often considered rioting, drinking themselves silly, walking out, or eating their tablecloths. Sometimes they did.

On July 1 of this year, Sri Lanka rose again, this time as Sri Lanka Restaurant. As befits the more stately and understated name, the restaurant now--still under stewardship of chef Evan Balasuriya--is smaller and classier. As befits the soaring rents in Uptown, the restaurant isn't there; it's in Calhoun Village, the strip mall northwest of Lake Calhoun held down by an Applebee's and a Barnes & Noble.

What's so classy about the joint? Muted lighting from chunky fixtures, dark, extravagantly textured terra-cotta walls, and oversized, geometric-patterned serving dishes all contribute to a feel that's more grown-up than grubby, and the newly elegant dishes are up to par with the newly sophisticated environs. How elegant? This elegant: a special of split, whole, steamed lobster with squid and long beans ($22). Or a seafood dish ($22) in which slices of ripe mango are arranged around the edge of a platter, each crescent of orange fruit centered in a bright spinach-leaf cup so that the arrangement looks like an enormous, many-rayed flower. Or an appetizer of chutney scallops ($10), a good pound of shellfish sizzled with onions and chutney, served hot and tender on a black platter, in the heart of a dark vegetable bowl made of whole red cabbage leaves.

As you might guess from the above dishes, the focus of the new Sri Lanka is fresh seafood. Mussels are available as an appetizer ($10), sautéed in a dusky, smoky coriander sauce. Large prawns split and served in their shells make up the curried deviled shrimp ($14). There's also halibut, snapper, salmon, and more than half a dozen ways to have either fresh scallops or soft squid rings.

Much of this seafood is very good. The chutney scallop appetizer ($10) is excellent, and, as it's sized for two, it would make an entrée if paired with rice ($1). In it you'll find everything you might want in a meal: It's tender and delicate, thanks to the scallops, and hot and piquant from the chutney, and it boasts a lively texture, from the sautéed, seared leeks that underpin the dish. The mango seafood platter ($22) is vast, featuring lots of scallops, shrimp, and squid tossed with a light curry and whole, mouth-puckering tamarind fruits. The shellfish in the coriander mussel appetizer ($10) were perfectly done, and very unusual; after so many encounters with Thai coconut mussels or European preparations, I found the cilantro and dusky spices used here made the common mussel surprising again.

There are four vegetarian meals as well. I thought the vegetable-filled roti ($11) was the best. It's a combination of your garden-variety vegetables--carrots, onions, broccoli, and button mushrooms--combined with cashew nuts, long beans, and a hollow, stemlike vegetable I've only seen on Chinese menus before (called "hollow vegetable"), which our waitress said was called "cancun" and pronounced like the Mexican island. All of these vegetables were sautéed together, wrapped inside a plain roti--at this restaurant a translucent, oil-fried flatbread that is like a cross between a crêpe and a fried Indian bread like poori. The roti is topped with a ladle of bright orange dal, here a thick lentil mixture studded with nutty, toasted mustard seeds. Sadly, the other vegetable dishes I tried--vegetable noodles ($12) and the vegetable stir-fry ($11)--seemed like different presentations of the same dish. Basically, you get the same vegetable mélange with roti, noodles, or rice. It would be nice if the restaurant offered some very different vegetarian options, perhaps something based on sweet potatoes or squash. (You also may encounter the same sameness if you don't order carefully among the seafood--many of the curries are quite similar.)

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