Wanderlust Hotel (lobby level)
2 Dickson Road
Tel: 6970 7838
Open for dinner only Wed to Sun: 6pm to 10pm and for lunch on Sat & Sun: 11am to 4pm. Closed Mon and Tues.
A Sri Lankan chef who never made a hopper before in his life. A Malaysian-born chef who had no clue what Sri Lankan food was until he was asked to cook it. Yet together, they are the building blocks of Kotuwa – where for Rishi Naleendra, love means never having to doubt your curry.
So what if he never went to hopper-making school. The pull of his heritage, many calls to his mother and a head chef with a cultural sponge for a palate are all he needs to make Kotuwa a fitting ode to the land of his birth.
Granted, it was not an easy street to begin with. This is technically Kotuwa version 2 – the first being a so-so takeaway trial at Cloudstreet during Circuit Breaker when its Wanderlust hotel opening was delayed indefinitely. The food didn’t travel well, the spices weren’t always in sync and popular approval didn’t necessarily make it good.
It’s a whole different story now that the Little India space is finally up and running. And chef Naleendra has finally perfected his hoppers – bowl-shaped, crisp-edged rice flour pancakes with or without a sunny side egg in the middle, and both equally good dunked into a comforting bowl of dhal.
It’s a good-looking restaurant too – contemporary-colonial-rustic with a hint of Geoffrey Bawa that triggers vague memories of Colombo and the exotic gastronomy we somehow failed to find there.
Which accounts for the appeal of Kotuwa. The best Sri Lankan food is to be found in private homes not restaurants, and it’s not like we can go to Colombo and knock on his mother’s door. Authenticity isn’t the goal here – it’s more about capturing the essence of Sri Lankan tradition on a level that resonates with local diners.
Besides, who are we to quibble when we can’t tell a kottu from a watalappam, much less spell them without a Google search. In fact, we’ve always found Sri Lankan food to be a bit of an enigma, sort of Indian but not quite, leaning more towards acidity, smoky, bitter overtones and a passive aggressiveness that makes you not want to get into an argument with any of its appetisers.
As it is, we’ve literally assaulted by the lychee achcharu (S$8) – normally sweet angelic morsels turned into attack fruit after an immersion in apple cider vinegar, mustard and chillies for a triple whammy of sweet, spicy and sharp. After a couple of them, you’re either floored or addicted.
There is lesser punishment in the devilled cashews (S$8), clearly not a misnomer for the heavy coating of curry spices and chilli surrounding the fattest cashews we’ve come across.
Short eats are savoury snacks and here, the mutton rolls (S$14) pull ahead of the crab cutlets (S$16) for its more recognisable smoky minced lamb curry rolled in panko crumbs and deep fried like a savoury doughnut. The crab versions are like brandade-filled croquettes that are quite overpowering on the spice front. A meal isn’t complete without sambols – assorted relishes of which seeni sambol (S$8) is the best. Caramelised onions are cooked till deep brown with just a bit of tamarind to offset the sweetness. There’s also pol sambol (S$8) which is grated coconut with chilli and lime, and Singhala achcharu (S$8) which is their version of achar.
Kudos to head chef Alan Chan, who helms the kitchen in lieu of the original Sri Lankan chefs who couldn’t come because of the pandemic. With just one dining trip to Sri Lanka before launching Kotuwa’s original takeaway service, he seems to have nailed the ‘foreignness’ while keeping things accessible.
Another highlight is chef Naleendra’s hoppers (S$4 to S$6) – while a little more airy and powdery than we remember, they’re soulmates with the creamy dhal (S$8), and the egg version has the added luxury of a soft runny yolk.
Don’t miss the Isso Devil (S$34) – a very easy to eat saute of large, firm prawns in a sweet-savoury briny gravy that comes from tossing prawn shells with ginger, chilli and tomatoes.
We’re less able to wrap our heads around kottu rotti, which seems like shredded prata wok-fried with eggs – like a cruel trick by a carrot cake hawker. The first few bites of polos kottu (S$18) – a vegetarian fried roti with baby jackfruit – is good as it’s still piping hot but the moment it starts to cool, sogginess sets in. On the other hand, we totally get black pepper kithul pork (S$24) for its crispy pork belly caramelised with kithul sugar (similar to gula melaka) and pepper, so you get a salty-sweet porky crunch.
If you’re open to some mess, what’s Sri Lankan food without its namesake crabs, and the market price critters are swathed in a heady not-curry-not-chilli gravy that’s thick and potent with fenugreek and cumin, with an almost bitter finish. The gravy grows on you, especially when tempered with sweet onion sambol and scooped up with yellow rice. There will be splatter damage, but bibs and wet towels come to the rescue.
Softened marie biscuits and chocolate fashioned into a cake is a typical Sri Lankan dessert (S$16) that sounds low brow but gets the pastry chef treatment here with Valrhona chocolate ganache-like layers which isn’t too sweet. That’s probably because the Watallapam tart (S$16) overcompensates with its jaggery-sweetened baked coconut custard tart filling.
Kotuwa is chef Naleendra’s labour of love – it’s a circus of spices that alternately alienates and embraces, but if you can roll with the punches, it’s a culinary tour that’s worth going on.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was originally published in The Business Times.