Lankan Railway Cafe is a Sri Lankan and Indian cafe and restaurant in Mortdale. It's a family run business with chef Chanaka Gunasekara (formerly of Flying Fish and Subcontinental) and his wife Nilu who runs the floor. It's a place to make a beeline to if you're feeling like a delicious Sri Lankan crab curry feast!
I've had a strong craving for Sri Lankan food ever since I got back from my trip to Sri Lanka late last year. Laura and I were doing our "round the world trip" visiting restaurants of countries whose food we missed. It's a sunny winter's day when we make the drive to Mortdale to Lankan Railway Cafe. The name was suggested to them by chef Peter Kuruvita and references the train that winds its way up through Sri Lanka's tea country.
Now just a note: you'll want to schedule your visit according to what you want to eat. For example, if you are hoping for hoppers (not string hoppers but the bowl shaped hoppers) you'll have to visit on a Saturday night. Which is also sort of unusual because hoppers are usually a breakfast food. If you want Lamphrais (a banana leaf wrapped rice and curry dish) come on Friday night and Sunday is for Kiribath, which is rice cooked in coconut milk and shaped into small cakes.
As it is we are here on a Saturday lunchtime. But as luck would have it, there's a leftover Lamphrais from the night before in the fridge. Laura and I start on the drinks. It's a wood apple juice with ice cream for me and a Falooda with basil seeds for her. Wood apple is a somewhat acquired taste and not for everyone; it tastes like slightly fermented, grainy apples but the ice cream really balances it well.
Laura lets me loose on the menu which is around 70% Sri Lankan and 30% Indian. I choose all my favourite Sri Lankan foods. One of my favourite Sri Lankan food categories are "short eats" which are portable snacks. In Sri Lanka snacks don't tend to be packet chips or things like that, they're more the freshly made and fried short eats that you can grab on the go or for breakfast.
There is a choice of four items for the mixed snack platter and we go for the fish, beef and vegetable short eats which are like crumbed spring rolls with curried filling. The three are quite similar but the favourite is the vegetable roll. They come with a date and tamarind chutney and a coconut chutney.
I remember eating Vadai, the round snacks on the famous blue train from Kandy. The Ulundu Vadai is a spongy ring made of soaked urad dal and flavoured with coconut, coriander and chillies and deep fried. It's like a dense, spongy savoury donut. The Masala Vadai is a disc of crunchy seasoned lentils.
Ooh what's that?" I say as I see Chanaka walk past with a tray of freshly baked short eats. There's a triangular fish pie, a delicious Sini Sambal bun with spiced, caramelised onions inside and a soft Croco bun (so named for its shape that resembles a crocodile) with sugar coating on the outside.
We start with the string hoppers that come with your choice of a vegetable or a meat curry. We're more intrigued by the vegetable curries and our picks is the beetroot curry with the string hoppers.
The beetroot curry is lighter and less coconutty than others that I've had but it's the pick of the three curries. We also try the pumpkin curry which is rich in coconut milk but are less taken with the jackfruit curry as the flavours don't quite permeate into the jackfruit pieces.
To go with our curries we also order an egg paratha which is a flat bread filled with egg, onions, chilli and herbs. It's delicious on its own or used to scoop up a curry.
A Sri Lankan crab curry feast is something that I remember very fondly from both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Sri Lankan crab curry is a richly flavoured curry made with plenty of curry leaves, curry powder and coconut and the medium crab curry is $21 and the large one is $34 which is so very reasonable. The blue swimmer crabs are full of meat and there are two whole crab cut in half in this curry. Chanaka also brings us some complimentary bread to dip into the curry.
A little later Laura asks me, "Did you leave that bit of bread in there?" pointing to the piece of bread on its side, taking a long, luxurious bath in the curry.
"No I thought that was you," I answer. I pick it up and take a bite into the spongy, saucy bread. Heaven.
We ordered one of each of the condiments but really we didn't really even touch them. There's chilli, date and tamarind chutney, pineapple chutney and raita but all we needed was the eggplant moju and the pol sambol.
I love eggplant moju or eggplant pickle and while it isn't on the menu we ask if we can order some separately. "Which size would you like?" Nilu asks. "Large please," I answer. It's more chutney-like with more vinegar than the type I had in Sri Lanka but it's a delicious addition to any mouthful of curry or rice.
They heat up the lamphrais for us. I love this little travel sized biryani wrapped up in banana leaves. There's a boiled egg, eggplant moju, pieces of tender chicken on the bone and potatoes. The rice is spiced and flavoursome and I especially like the chicken pieces in this.
We had ordered the Egg Kottu Rotti but this didn't appear and we didn't check the bill well enough so we will have to come back for that one day.
Dessert is Watalappam, a thick spiced, custardy type of pudding. Watalappam is similar to a crème caramel but with more spices and more firm in texture. It's sweet with a little syrup too but we are too full to make a decent approach at it. Nilu giggles when she sees all the food we are taking home with us.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you tried much Sri Lankan food? Do you like food where you have to use your hands and get messy eating? And how often do you take food home with you?
This meal was independently paid for.
Lankan Railway Cafe
2/1 Morts Rd, Mortdale NSW 2223
Tuesday to Thursday, Sunday 11am–9pm
Friday & Saturday 11am–10pm
Phone: (02) 8021 6889