BYOB of the Week: Sigiri, Your Gateway Sri Lankan Restaurant in the East Village
If you're familiar with one restaurant on this block of lower First Avenue, it's probably not Sigiri—you're more likely to have been strongarmed into an Indian joint by its zealous street hawkers ("You must be hungry! I can see you're hungry! We have a table just for you!") than you are to have climbed the stairs to this sedate Sri Lankan restaurant.
But this cheery, lively BYOB is a much better dinner bet. While Staten Island has a sizable Sri Lankan community and the restaurants to go along with it, other boroughs have a comparative dearth; to my knowledge, Sigiri is the only one in Manhattan. A shame, as the cuisine's amalgam of traditional South Asian rices and curries, Dutch and Malay influences, and tropical ingredients make for some of the continent's most interesting eating.
There's nothing that crosses cultural divides like a deep fryer, giving us an appetizer platter ($9) that curiously resembles a Denny's Sampler. Breaded fish cutlets, vegetable spring rolls, and fish spring rolls were all perfectly crunchy and aggressively spiced, though the lentil patties were unappealingly dry.
Better were the Gothamba Roti ($5.50), whose mashed meat and potato filling resembled that of a samosa, but with a thinner, crepe-like shell.
String hoppers ($9) resemble a pile of noodles, but upon closer inspection are individual patties of rice flour dough, long threads spiraled into patties and steamed. Served with a mild, milky coconut gravy and a mouth-searing, chili-laced coconut sambol.
These same noodles are transformed into a string hopper kotthu ($11.50)—bits of string hopper stir-fried with chicken, egg, and vegetables, then beautifully mounded. Like the Sri Lankan version of fried rice, the result is unexpectedly eggy, tasting more like a starch-laced omelet than an egg-laced starch.
The peppery pork black curry ($10.50), laced with coriander and cardamom, makes use of roasted spices for the subtle, smoky heat and deep color of the tender, fatty pork.
Noted as a "special occasion dish," the Dutch-inflected lamprais ($13.50) piles rice, chicken, egg, flaky fish, and ash plantain into a banana leaf cradle, cooked slowly at low heat so as not to dry out the leaves. The rice grows sweet and sticky around the edges, while corners of spiced meat and plantain steam separately, like four dishes in one.
If I returned for one dish, it would be the hoppers ($10.00): bowl-shaped, crepe-like pancakes made from a fermented rice and coconut batter, giving them a slight sour tang, served both plain and with a gently cooked egg in the middle. The last, of course, is the one to fight over—if there's anything better than a crepe, it's a crepe with a runny yolk nestled in its hollow.
When you're bored by Indian and Thai gets tired, I'd highly recommend giving Sri Lankan food a try; bring a chilled white or, perhaps the better bet, a six-pack of something substantive to cut through the spice.