At Lankan Fill­ing Sta­tion in Syd­ney’s east, south­ern Asian food finds a dy­namic new cham­pion, writes PAT NOURSE.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct -

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.

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