A Lot of Spice Makes Everything Nice
1278 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 695-1730.
Steven Sears thinks Americans eat funny. "There's a whole symphony of flavors in the world, and Americans work with just three notes: sweet, fat, salt. That's why Americans have such problems with weight, and have such an extreme love-hate relationship with food, because they bounce between sweet, fat, and salt, and never find any peace. There's just so much more."
Like the earthy warmth of cumin, the sweet bite of cloves, the springy hot of ginger, and all the dozens of other uncommon flavors used in Sri Lankan and Indonesian cooking. Talking with Sears is a lesson in the detail of exotic flavors, and he'll wax on about the differences between lentils (he only uses Turkish Mysore red ones), the aroma of dry-pan-roasted mustard seeds (found in the rice dish nasi goreng), and the subtle, woody herbiness that arises in a dish when kaffir-lime leaves and curry leaves are combined. Dining at Cafe Ceylon, the recent sit-down side of Sears's famous Curry Leaf Deli, is an adventure in all the flavor notes your taste buds never heard before.
It's all due to Sears's nearly fanatical devotion to individual spices. He spends a good deal of his time seeking out exotic peppers, like the Ahi, Piquin, Cubanelle, or African Red Devil; unbundling bales of cinnamon sent straight from Sri Lanka; husking knobby little pods of cardamom; and powdering all his different curries in a hand-crank grain grinder. So he's understandably agitated when customers sitting in the dining room look up from the menu and say: "Is it all curry? I don't like curry." He blames it on a few bad Indian restaurants or school cafeterias, where cooks got hold of some old, dirty-tasting cumin and flung it around indiscriminately.
"The curry on your plate is just one of a million sorts of spice gravies. Saying you don't like curry is like saying you don't like sauce. What kind of curry don't you like? Chances are that there's another one that you will like. It does get kind of depressing, when you feel like this is really good food and you can't get other people to even try it. Then I see some of these sugar-and-fat places packed full of people and I think, how can they eat this way every day?"
Some of the things the sugar-and-fat-seeking masses are missing are pretty tasty. Like the Chapati & Chutney appetizer ($3.20), a disc of chewy homemade fry bread slathered with an apricot chutney and topped with creamy cambozola, a fresh cheese. It's a sweet, smoky, and almost wine-dry taste, and the cheese gives it a lively edge. But there are other appetizers that aren't going to win him many converts. The Ceylon Roti Plate ($4.95) is a selection of three flat breads, a chewy, musky, coconut roti enhanced with spices, a heavy whole-wheat bread, and a big fluffy sheet of a light white roti. While all the breads were very good, it was strange to see them put together on a plate and presented as an appetizer--I could just envision an adventuresome wife dragging her potato-skin-loving hubbie here and never hearing the end of it.
Sears has modified a typical Sri Lankan menu for Minnesota palates. Two flavors prominently used in the cuisine--fish sauce, a piquant, slightly stinky brew that's a cousin to anchovies, and fresh minced chilies--are kept marginal here. All entrées come with a selection of fresh sambols, chutneys, and raitas--condiments meant to be mixed in with food to enhance its flavor. Sambols are where you'll usually find the chilies, though they can be nut- or vegetable-based too. Chutneys are a fruit-based, vinegar-tinged sauce also meant to be combined with other dishes--the Indian word chatni means "to taste something in small amounts."
Raitas are cooling sauces, often containing fruit or nuts. Since Westerners usually don't season food at the table, perhaps the best way to think of using sambols and chutneys is not like putting ketchup on a burger, but more like adding butter to a baked potato, when you really mash it in there thoroughly. Sri Lankans and Indonesians eat with their right hands, which allows them quite a bit of flexibility in creating different flavors with every bite. (Sears says he'd love it if patrons wanted to eat with their hands. "It would be great, it's so much more fun, more sensual that way.") Also, pungent curries are eaten all blended together with the rice. Sears is dismayed when people ignore the rice and then complain that the food is too strong. "I see a lot of my job now as education," he says.
So it helps that he's got a super-friendly Diane Keaton of a waitress, whose perky jokiness keeps the foreignness of the food from being too forbidding. (What's this here? "I call it nasty-go-wrong. But it's not nasty, I just can't remember it any other way, it's absolutely wonderful. More tea anyone?") On my visits there were never more than four tables seated and the one waitress handled them superbly. Of course I can't vouch for what the service will be like if the place suddenly becomes packed.
The everyday menu features four vegetarian dishes, my favorite of which was the Ceylon Veggie Plate ($9.55), which had a generous portion of deviled eggplant, mustard-pickled with a silky, smoky, pungent taste. It reminded me of smoked salmon, in the intensity and fullness of its flavor. The plate also came with lightly curried tomatoes, earthy Mysore lentils, green beans in a macadamia-nut dressing (that I didn't really like, it seemed more oily and earthy than something I wanted to eat, and I love green beans), and a delicious preparation of kale, cooked 'til it had just a hint of al dente bite and gussied up with a dusting of sweet meaty coconut.
The curried red chicken ($10.95) is marked by deep, dark flavors. The curry powder is roasted and smoky, and the chicken is soft as pudding and rich with a nearly chocolaty essence. However, it comes with turmeric-heavy curried potatoes that just sort of sit there and glow. The ocean perch in kaffir-lime sauce ($10.85) didn't thrill me either; the sauce was sweet with coconut milk and potently aromatic with the citrusy leaves, but the fish tasted overdone, as though it had been simmering in this heavy sauce all day. The best thing I had was a featured special, a chipotle-accented goat burrito that was sleek and again smoky, imbued with the best characteristics of a traditional mole with the added aromatics and lightness of the Sri Lankan sides.
Two of the desserts were wonderful, particularly the mango-bread pudding, which smells terrific, laced as it is with fresh-ground cinnamon, and dense and rich from the pita breads it is made with. The other gem is the "chocolate paté," a rich slab of intensely flavored Belgian chocolate given texture with slivers of garbanzo beans, of all things. When you factor in the lovely space (the walls are a romantic deep red and palm green, inspired by a ripening mango) and the wonderful tea menu--dozens of kinds, including the best Chai tea ($2.50) I've ever had, ground fresh so that none of the essential oils are lost to oxidation--it seems like a fine spot for culinary adventurers who won't mind the occasional "mmm, that's different."
Except on Mondays. On Mondays Cafe Ceylon is really exceptional. That's when they put away the regular menu and offer an Indonesian Rijstaffel. A Dutch word meaning rice table, Rijstaffel is basically an Indonesian smorgasbord, a variety of dishes served family style and eaten with rice. First they present you with three varieties of rice that change weekly, but hopefully you'll get the aromatic nasi goreng, a heady mixture of nutty, pan-roasted mustard seeds, coriander, and kaffir-lime leaves. Then they load the table with half a dozen other selections that might include a plucky shredded-papaya salad, gado gado (a vegetable dish topped with a lush peanut sauce), water spinach with fried peanuts served under a bed of tomato-coconut-lime puree, and goat rendang (goat, by the way, tastes like a flavorful, less expensive cut of beef). There also might be a dry curry, chicken in a delicate, vibrantly fragrant lemongrass-and-galangal sauce, and krupeks or shrimp chips, a fried-tapioca chip slightly flavored with shrimp paste.
Sweet ginger tea, fried shallots, sambol, and chutney accompany the meal, which costs $14.95 per person or $12.95 without the meat dishes. It's one of those meals that's perfectly user-friendly, since everyone is digging around in dishes and everybody gets enough to eat (they refill emptied dishes), and because there's enough new and unpredictable things going on at the table to fill any gaps in conversation. It's particularly convenient that this happens on Monday night, when so many other restaurants are closed, and I suspect that over time Cafe Ceylon will get a big restaurant-crowd following for their Rijstaffel.
In any event, Sears will keep grinding spices for his small audience. "If I was in England or Australia," says Sears, "no one would think that what I'm doing is strange. People there know curry, they love curry, it doesn't matter what their ethnic background is--they're going to eat curry. Stepping into curry seems to be something that hasn't happened here yet. But hopefully, I'm seeing more and more women come in, women tend to be more adventurous eaters." If ladies' nights across the nation are any indication, women are the critical edge of the wedge--though it remains to be seen how dates will go when the dishes are more fragrant than the daters.
Cafe Ceylon will be closed December 21-December 28.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.