At Lankan Filling Station in Sydney’s east, southern Asian food finds a dynamic new champion, writes PAT NOURSE.
At Lankan Filling Station in Sydney’s east, southern Asian food finds a dynamic new champion.
Would it be more useful to think of Lankan Filling Station less as a Sri Lankan restaurant and more an O Tama Carey restaurant? The food is very much Sri Lankan, tilted towards the Burgher side of Carey’s heritage, yet this is a place where everything bends less to the traditions of a particular state or culture and more to the force of a particular personality.
The look of the room is more Sydney-now than Tropical Modernist or Galle Fort-chic, all banquette and bentwood, concrete and careful lighting. Rare is the Sri Lankan restaurant, too, that serves Single O filter coffee, good Martinis, sake and yuzushu, Loire gamay, sangiovese on tap and mead (mead!) alongside its king coconut water, faluda, teas and arrack. These things are united by no other quality than the fact that they’re all things liked by O Tama Carey. Luckily for us she happens to have impeccable taste.
In Carey, southern Asian food in Sydney finds a capable and vigorous champion. A reader, a traveller and a person blessed with imagination, but also a hard-working chef who runs her kitchens with rigour, and relishes the roar of a serious wok-burner and the weight of a knife in her hand. I could tell you about her years at Billy Kwong, or remind you of the deftness and endless invention of her menus at Berta, but the only thing that you really need to know is that O Tama Carey is one hell of a cook.
She fries bouncy hunks of cuttlefish in a turmeric batter then tosses them with a curry-leaf butter, peppers, chilli and red onion. She flavours fried eggplant with tomato and tamarind, sautées cashew nuts in ghee, mustard seeds and chilli powder, and makes her own crunchy murruku mix. Pineapple goes into her pickles, coconutmilk gravy onto her fried eggs and she scatters curry leaves on anything that stands still.
Though the paper menu comes with instructions (and a pencil), it can be hard to fathom first go. First up, understand that though there’s good organic red rice on offer, the hoppers are king. These bowl-shaped pancakes of rice flour and coconut arrive tangy with ferment, crisp, toasty and lacy at the edges, soft, thicker and a little squishy in the centre. Tear them up and use them to scoop up some dhal or to mop up some curry.
“It’s a good idea to aim for a mix of colours,” offers manager Iris Rees.
The black curries are made by cooking mutton, goat or pork with a spice mix rich in clove, cardamom and nigella. The spices are roasted high and hard, and the meat is cooked without the addition of coconut milk or water, further intensifying the flavour. Prawns, by contrast, are poached in a wet unroasted red curry flavoured with fenugreek and cinnamon, given colour and warmth by chilli, soured with tamarind.
Contrast this again with the white curry – it isn’t hot or roasted, which foregrounds its sweet, aromatic qualities.
Lemongrass, pandan and a small side salad of pennywort, watercress and onion bring a green freshness to Filling Station’s Sri Lankan food that diagrams its connection to Thai and Burmese traditions as much as the subcontinent.
Prod a member of the service team, and they’ll tell you all about it. If the room seems familiar, a bit like a long, spooled-out version of Berta, the effect is enhanced by the appearance of Berta alumni like Stuart Blackwell, who, under Rees, provide service that is informed, unaffected and full of verve.
I’ve heard the value at Lankan questioned. You can eat a hopper set for $16, but I don’t ever seem to get out for less than $50 a head – without booze. Part of that questioning, I suspect, has to do with the fact that southern Asian food in Australia tends to be sold for very little money, and part of it is because some of the servings aren’t very big.
But then the production values here – the engagement of the service, the drinks, the general comfort levels – all of these things are in line with a $50-a-head meal rather than an eat-and-run hole-in-thewall. (Spend the extra
$10 to get the banquet and you will not go hungry.) There’s barely a bottle of wine on the list over $70. And I can say, with the confidence that comes of having eaten in the place a dozen times in three weeks, that the food is seldom less than impressive.
Almost all of the menu is gluten-free, too, and the vegetarian offerings are substantial. The cabbage mallung is buttery and lifted with turmeric and mustard seed, while Carey’s liberal use of coconut milk and coconut oil plus lemongrass and pandan give her dhal an enviable luxuriousness.
Desserts are a must. And even if you don’t fall for the silken charms of the baked jaggery custard called watalappam, or the gooey delight of buffalo curd with kithul palm treacle, be sure to get some love cake to go. Scented with rose and almond, it’s a block of cashew, semolina and spice that will carry the magic of Lankan Filling Station into your tea break, and have you plotting your return.
Centre, from left: restaurant manager Iris Rees, head chef Jemma Whiteman and owner-chef O Tama Carey. Right: hoppers with sambols, white chillies and king coconut water.
Right: dhal and fish curry. Below right: curd and kithul with a glass of Project B mead by Sparrow & Vine.