While Manhattan’s eastside has long held the hegemony on South Asian Cuisine–with clusters of restaurants around Murray Hill and further south in the Village’s well-known East 6th Street–I stumbled across a lone outpost of Sri Lankan food all the way on West 28th Street (between 7th & 8th Aves.) The Banana Leaf comes as a welcome surprise off the beaten path. One peek through the glass storefront at the sumptutous feast laid out before you (otherwise known as the daily buffet) and you’re quickly in the door. Don’t expect anything fancy inside–just clean, intimate and comfortable, if not cool and slightly dark as well.
Today’s buffet consists of two kinds of rice, yellow and white; chicken curry; pappadom; carrot curry; mallung; dahl; radish curry; fish mustard curry, and an excellent and very authentic touch–some quick fried, dried red chilies. The Chinese use these as well to add a crunchy, smoky, spicy finishing touch to stir frys. But I can eat ’em like French fries–especially since the Sri Lankan kind are slightly salty.
I decide to order off the menu, since I’m in the mood for string hoppers. Made from rice flour pressed into thin noodles and steamed, Iddiyappam or string hoppers originated in South India, but have become a Sri Lankan institution by now. Usually eaten with a coconut milk gravy called kiri hodi ( pronounced KI-ri Ho-thee) and some meat or fish curry, this food has got to be eaten with your hands so you can mash up all the elements together and fashion a little ball of deliciousness to pop in your mouth. I ate my strings with a shrimp curry, bathing in kiri hodi and fairly mild, and a black pork curry, a specialty in the south of Sri Lanka, flavored with the slightly tart taste of goraka (gamboge), a sour fruit that provides the acidity in some Sri Lankan dishes. All of it was well-spiced, and with that authentic Sri Lankan flavor that makes you feel like you’re eating at someone’s home. Sri Lankan food, after all, is folk (as opposed to haute) cuisine and owner Raj Perera and his wife handle all the cooking duties, making different dishes for the buffet everyday. But if you order from the menu, you have the full range of Sri Lankan specialties. From rice & curry to hoppers, pittu, string hoppers, and lampreis, a special dish in which an entire meal is wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, there is plenty to please any pallete.
And for dessert, I had to try their wattalapam. Simiar to flan or creme caramel, wattalapam is made with eggs and coconut milk; sweetened with palm sugar (called jaggery in Sri Lanka); and spiced up with nutmeg, cardamom, and cloves to create a very rich and satisfying sweet counterpoint to the substantial meal I just downed. The soft, pudding-like texture was perfect and the flavor of the burnt jaggery predominant. I knew I had eaten a very fresh one since it was still a little warm in the center. My only gripe is that it had none of the caramel syrup for which this dessert if usually known. Still good, though, as was the entire meal, and I would definitely eat at Banana Leaf again.
And, Good News! They also deliver.