The Spice Channel

Michael Dvorak
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.

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.)

There are only a few meat dishes offered, but I enjoyed them all very much. The lamb roti ($13) had an utterly cravable, rich, complicated sauce. The beef mallum ($12) was the most unusual dish on the menu. Bite-sized chunks of chewy, spice-saturated meat are seared and cooked till tender but still dry, and combined with long beans, cancun, and fresh spinach to create a toss of items that are acrid, bitter, and gamy in an appealing way. (Think of the attractive bitterness of coffee, not the off-putting bitterness of grapefruit peel.)

The restaurant features a small wine list, but how any wine is expected to stand up to these strong--often fiery--dramatically contrasting flavors is beyond me. Conventional wisdom suggests you pair riesling or gewürztraminer with spicy Asian foods, but I don't like the only gewürztraminer Sri Lanka offers (from Columbia Crest, $18 a bottle, $5 a glass, and too sweet for me). One night I tried the Folonari pinot grigio-chardonnay blend ($17 a bottle, $4.75 a glass), which our server recommended, but found it collapsing to sweet water in the face of the food. Your best bet here is beer, like the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($4.50) or one of the sweet yogurt-based shakes--similar to Indian lassi--such as mango, wood apple, or passion-fruit cream ($5 for a large order, $3 for a small).

Of course, if you're someone who remembers the old Sri Lanka, there's only one real question in your mind: How many hours does it take to get fed? And, to a lesser extent, is there any consistency whatsoever in the spice levels? In this new incarnation, I got fed in normal, conventional amounts of time. Though I'll not soon forget the panic of the server who, finding us dallying over our drinks before ordering, gripped the table white-knuckled and insisted, "Look, you don't understand, this food takes a really, really, really long time." It didn't, but I couldn't help following the tantrum of the people at the next table, who said they had been waiting for their food for more than an hour. If there are any real troubles with timing here, I can truthfully report they never happened to me. As far as chile levels, your servers will offer you four options, mild, medium, hot, and very hot. I got most things medium, and found they were kept to a manageable, consistent fire level.

Other tips? Most dishes are sized to share. I wouldn't recommend ordering more than three entrées for four people. House-made chutney ($3) is an invaluable addition to the table; when I ordered it I received not only a sweet raisin chutney, but also a fantastically fiery chile-tomato seasoning paste, and a hot vinegared coconut-chile seasoning paste. These condiments allow you to vary your food through the course of the meal, which is fun. I thought the fresh coconut roti ($2) was the best of the roti--it's a thick, chewy pancake--but I always got the combination roti plate ($6), offering one each of plain, egg-filled, and coconut roti. If you're aesthetically sensitive, try to secure a table away from the front window or you'll be afflicted with an evening staring at the Applebee's neon.

Contrary to all the rules of nostalgia, I have to say I like this new incarnation of Sri Lanka better than the old one. The new may be more expensive than the old, but it's more reliable. It may be less wide-ranging in its attempts, but it's more sophisticated in its accomplishments. And, of course, there comes a time when you're ready for the wiener-dog can opener and some really good scallops.

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