I’m just going to say it: At some point during the COVID-19 crisis, I lost my faith in food.
Sure I was waxing lyrical about how we need to save our food scene but deep in my heart of hearts, I was re-examining my relationship with food, and in particular, dining out.
As thousands die and people around me lose their jobs, take pay cuts or slip into the stages of plague dread, I began to tighten my own belt: Why am I paying so much for meals when the future is uncertain?
And so I retreated into the warm bosom of my home kitchen and ultimately found solace in chopping, stirring and tasting steaming broths as I listened to the daily news.
That changed when a knock came at the door over the Easter weekend and the delivery guy at the other side of the gate brought forth three paper bags.
Inside sat warm boxes of wonders: Of piquant pickles, a cannon of curries and deep-fried nibbly things. This was a delivery from Kotuwa, a new Sri Lankan restaurant by chef Rishi Naleendra, the driving force behind Cheek and Cloud Street.
It’s a terrible time to launch a restaurant, and the intricate dishes of Cloud Street would probably never make it alive on delivery. Instead, that very same kitchen at 84 Amoy Street is now whipping up soulful Sri Lankan cuisine — the sort that you’d savour like a hug from a lost love.
What to order at Kotuwa
We start with the small bites, or the “Short Eats” section of the menu. There’s three to choose from: The malu pan ($12 for a pair) — a triangular milk bun stuffed with a spiced fish, the crab cutlets ($12 for four) shaped into rounds and the beef rolls ($12 for two). All three are so delicious that I found myself going for seconds, except for the crab cutlets where slivers of spiced blue swimmer crab burst out of crispy breadcrumbs — I decimated all four in a span of minutes.
At this point, it’s worth pausing to admire three particular standouts from the menu. The first is a beetroot curry ($16) where the magenta-hued root vegetable is julienned and gently cooked with cumin, then brightened with fresh green chillis. The spice here is tame so the beetroot’s earthy beauty radiates out of the bowl — perfect for vegetarian or vegan friends who might not otherwise venture beyond the vanilla prison that is a kale salad.
The second is the dallo baduma ($22) or fried battered calamari tossed in chilli butter and a melange of stir-fried vegetables. This is an easy crowd-pleaser — after all, few can resist the toe-tingling pleasure of crispy calamari. It’s served with a wedge of lime which cuts through any grease.
And then, there’s the spicy pickled lychee — the achcharu of the day and which the restaurant says will, unfortunately, be a rotating dish. Despite its name, these fat lychees speckled with mustard seeds are pregnant with sweetness and are in no way spicy. It’s the perfect accompaniment on the side for an otherwise savoury meal.
But what’s a Sri Lankan meal without its selection of curries?
There’s plenty to order here, so take your pick from the black pork curry, the lamb, chicken, isso (prawn), kaju (cashew nuts) and dhal ($8-$22). The last two are vegetarian options; the dhal curry has a thick porridge-like consistency and generously seasoned, topped with a tangle of curry leaves.
For those who opt for red meat, the lamb is an excellent pick, with fork-tender chunks of lamb braised low and slow in a red curry.
Now imagine a spoonful of each of these dishes being assembled on a bed of white rice and what you’ll get is a symphony of flavour and a judicious study of balance; the earthiness of the beetroot, the sweetness of the lychees, the saltiness of the dhal and the umami of lamb.
Desserts, on the other hand, is Kotuwa’s Achilles’ heel. To be fair it’s still in its launch phase and to expect a full, complete menu would be shooting for the stars. At press time, there’s only one offering available, and that’s by way of a chocolate biscuit pudding ($12) where layers of plain biscuits are smothered with a light chocolate mousse.
It’s said to have originated during Sri Lanka’s British colonial era, and I can’t help but hope to see a wider selection. Might we see a watalappam when the restaurant launches proper?
Here’s hoping, because when that happens, this serious Sri Lankan eatery will be the first place I’d head to. In these godawful times, we all deserve a good hug. Let that be from Kotuwa.
To order, head to the official website.