If it were not for the neon palm tree budding from the four feet of snow out front you would not likely find this new restaurant, as it is set back from the buildings that surround it. There is a sign, but there are so many signs in this section of Carling Avenue you tend not to notice it. You do notice the tree.
Behind the tree and beneath the sign is a little yellow house with a red roof and grey trim. This is the new and second home of the popular Sri Lankan restaurant, Ceylonta. (Ceylonta number one is still packing in the lunchtime office crowd at its Somerset Street location.)
Inside the little yellow house is a two-storey restaurant with an L-shaped dining room on the ground floor, and a few smaller, more private rooms up the circular staircase. Itâ€™s all a comfortable, cosy space with some appealing privileged nooks. The welcome, particularly when owner Ranjan Thana is in house, is warm. (Iâ€™ve just made tea. Can I bring you a cup?) Though I have been here without him and found the service distracted and cool.
Sri Lankan food shares some similarities with the north Indian dishes we are so familiar with in Ottawa, but it is its own cuisine, marked by geography and climate and colonial influences (mostly Dutch and Portuguese). I am a fan of the curry-leaf-spiced, coconut-sweet, tamarind-tangy, chilli-fired flavours of this food, and I have always been a fan of Ceylonta. Having a second one in another part of the city doubles the pleasure.
You might start your meal with a mutton roll. These crisp packages come stuffed with curried goat and potato. Dip them into the devilish chilli sauce provided, and they take on considerable pow. It will help you forget, albeit temporarily, the four feet of snow in the parking lot. Good too are the vada (or vadai), falafal-like fried patties, not at all greasy, of lentils and yellow peas, crunchy on the outside and soft inside, fragrant and medium-spiced, delicious dunked in the addictive coconut sambol. Follow with a thali â€“ steamed basmati rice and an array of vegetable curries â€“ grated beet with coconut, cooked down spinach, cabbage, okra, chick pea, butternut squash, mixed vegetables, plus a bowl of thick yoghurt that tastes homemade. These curries are of varying heat, but are all â€“ the meek and the fierce – intensely flavourful.
I like the dosai (a thin, crispy, browned crepe of lentil and rice) with a sunny egg imbedded in its batter, or with a filling of curried potato, quite mild. Fire it up with the fishy kata sambol. String hoppers are vermicelli-like noodles. Order the mutton string hoppers kothu and you find moist, tender chunks of spiced meat, fried with onion and aromatic herbs and spices. The Sinhalese signature curries are those stews of a rich coffee colour, achieved when the spices are roasted to dark before grinding. The dark meat that clings to the dark sauce in the complex, flavour-charged chicken curry is moist and meaty.
The lunch buffet starts with a tamarind curry soup, the pale, thin broth deliciously infused with curry leaves, fenugreek, cinnamon bark, onion and red chilli. I return to the buffet. The cold that is creeping its way up the back of my throat toward my nose is beaten down with a second bowl of it.
I return again. Ignoring the tandoori chicken (likely tossed in to please those who believe it canâ€™t be an Indian lunch buffet without tandoori chicken) I opt instead for the rich butternut squash curry, an egg curry, a chicken stew of tender bird, and a â€œdevilledâ€ curry in which chewy chunks of beef, onion and peppers float in a dark, broody sauce. And if theyâ€™re your thing, the crunchy-fried sprats in an oily brew of cooked down onions and red chilli peppers are dynamite. Keep the yoghurt handy.