Of the many, many global cuisines inspiring restaurants across San Francisco, Sri Lankan has to be one of the most under-represented, despite being a country of more than 20 million people. When chef Brian Fernando opened 1601 Bar & Kitchen earlier this year, the city collectively wondered, "What in the world is Sri Lankan cuisine?"
Fernando currently serves a quartet of vegetarian items on the menu of "short eats," a term for "tapas" Each of the four dishes would certainly be found in Sri Lanka, though also benefit from Fernando's culinary journey to Howard Street.
The real take-away from 1601 is how Fernando's accompaniments to the vegetables take the spotlight; be it a chutney, a curry, or a sauce.
The best example of this came from the crispy okra ($8). The okra itself was engaging, sporting a pleasantly light batter of dessicated coconut and rice flour (and it's gluten-free!) with just a tinge of grease. Here, the okra soars because of the robust cashew curry underneath. Fernando uses a host of spices headlined by curry leaves, ginger, and tamarind paste, then combined with coconut milk. The crunchy okra contrasted with the crunchy, cashew-fortified texture of the curry, and then with the additionally crunchy fried curry leaf garnish. Consider this the ultimate bar snack in Colombo.
Elsewhere, Fernando shuns the traditional cauliflower-in-a-curry treatment, opting to brine the vegetable overnight then caramelize it. The tanned cauliflower shares the plate with the pale acidic emulsion made with a lime pickle juice and aioli, and a bright, rust-colored sweet carrot and cumin puree ($7). Apparently the chefs even eat sandwiches of the lime pickle emulsion.
1601's pickle plate ($8) boasts a pronounced presence of the galangal, ginger, and chili brine. Each bite is the evolution of kimchee away from cabbage. The plate's roster rotates with the seasons. Right now it's carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and radishes. The best moments come when you dip the pickle into the buckwheat "soil," in a fun take on roots and dirt.
Being 2013, are you surprised that the raw kale salad is one of 1601's best sellers? Inspired by the Sri Lankan "wet salad" called mallun and the not-so Sri Lankan salad called "Caesar," Parmesan shards are tossed with kale leaves and toasted coconut, rather than being in the dressing. It's the dressing you'll remember; a gorgeous sweet-sour-funky number from fermented black garlic lime pickle juice, and some orange zest ($9).
I found myself admittedly licking every last spot of that dressing, like with the cashew nut curry. I would've used bread to sop them up, but alas, I was told they don't serve bread because it wouldn't be in Sri Lanka.
Well, at least they definitely have a way with vegetables.