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1601 Bar & Kitchen: S.F.'s First Sri Lankan Restaurant Focuses on Small Plates 

Wednesday, May 22 2013

The opening of San Francisco's first Sri Lankan restaurant sent a delicious shiver of anticipation down the spines of those who get excited about such things. Sri Lanka, the little island nation off the southern coast of India, promises an intriguing blend of cuisines from colonial influences like the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, as well as the geographic proximity of South India — and unlike other South Asian cuisines, it's not easily found in the Bay Area.

Disappointingly, chef Brian Fernando decided to focus on California-Sri Lankan fusion in the form of small plates, and while many of the flavors at his new 1601 Bar & Kitchen are interesting, they don't go far enough to deliver the kind of transportive experience those of us eagerly watching his restaurant develop were hoping to find.

The menu only has one section, "Short Eats" — the Sri Lankan term for, basically, "tapas" — and it follows the format of most small plates restaurants in town. The waiters recommend two or three dishes per person, but fair warning: Three can be too many, depending on whether you're getting one of the meatier dishes toward the bottom of the menu or one of the lighter salads or soups higher up. It's a dining format that works best with a large group of not-especially-hungry friends willing to dish out a healthy amount of cash for lots of tastes that won't necessarily fill you up.

When the small plates succeed, they are very good, like lamb and pork meatballs, which were meaty, succulent and infused with spice. Fernando based the dish on lamb curry, one of his favorites growing up, and marinates pork and lamb shoulder in a mix of spices that include ginger, garlic, coriander, fenugreek, and fresh curry leaves. The lamb flavor comes through without being too gamey, and the three good-sized meatballs are set off with mashed green garbanzos and daubs of thick Straus yogurt. I wanted more yogurt on the plate, but overall it was a triumph of texture and flavor combinations that you couldn't find at other South Asian restaurants.

I'd also return for a hopper, a bowl-shaped rice-flour-and-coconut-milk crepe with a poached egg in the middle. It's a favorite street food in Sri Lanka, and comes with two standard sambals — fruity stewed onions and coconut mixed with chilies and maldive fish (a dry cured tuna). You crack the egg, add sambals to your taste, and eat the dish with your hands. It's basic food, but satisfying in its simplicity. Another delightfully traditional menu item is the mulligatawny soup, with a potato-thickened broth laced with turmeric and with an addictive chicken confit.

The restaurant needs compelling reasons like these to return, because the location isn't great for foot traffic. It's on a lonely corner where the Mission meets SOMA, and despite its proximity to mid-Market, Hayes Valley, and the Mission, is more of a destination restaurant than one you'd just stumble upon. The décor doesn't have much to draw a crowd — it's pleasant enough, in an industrial-chic way, with lots of poured concrete, distressed furniture, an L-shaped bar, and colorful paintings of street scenes on the walls. But the atmosphere says "wine bar" more than it says "exotic cuisine," and there are wine bars aplenty in this city.

Chef Fernando came from restaurants like Chez Panisse and Le Papillon, and his experience is seen through the food, most obviously in his gorgeous plating. The Sri Lankan pickled vegetables was an architecturally composed marvel, with piles of assorted carrots, beets, and other vegetables placed just so and punctuated with a black pepper spice mixture. The galangal-heavy pickles were a bit too one-dimensionally tart for my taste (only in S.F. would one have enough pickle-tasting experience to become a connoisseur) but I appreciated the inclusion of surprising produce like pickled cherries and Brussels sprouts in the mix.

And Fernando's expertise shines in dishes like the roasted quail, which is brined for a day and a half in a mixture that includes ginger, star anise, Sri Lankan cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, then cooked in a water bath, coated with chai spices (allspice, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon), and seared. "The concept of the dish is to emulate the flavors one might expect if they get a proper chai tea," says Fernando, and the result is poultry full of flavor not usually seen in the dish, especially with its accompanying toasted buckwheat and almond milk (meant to represent the milk in chai).

Only a few items flat-out didn't work conceptually, like the halibut ceviche, which tasted unappealingly muddy, or the roasted potatoes, which despite the addition of Maldive fish flakes and curry sauce didn't taste like much beyond fried potatoes, and at $7, seemed like a lot to spend on a small bowl of home fries. For dessert, Ceylon tea semifreddo came too burnt on top, but underneath the acrid sugar topping was a lightly tea-infused pudding.

Perhaps with time, the Sri Lankan element of the food will become more clearly defined — or maybe diners' expectations will be refocused to accept this as just another small plates joint. The thing is, San Francisco's already awash in Cali-fusion tapas; it seems like the team had a chance to boldly go where no restaurant had gone before, and whiffed it.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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