Natasha Rudra
The tables inside are covered in white linen, while outdoor seating is good for people-watching.
The tables inside are covered in white linen, while outdoor seating is good for people-watching. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Shop 8, Capitol Theatre Centre, Franklin Street Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603

View map

Opening hours Lunch 11.30am-2.30pm, Monday to Saturday; Dinner 5.30pm-late, seven days.
Features Licensed, BYO, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Jagath Ranasingha
Payments AMEX, Visa, eftpos
Phone 02 6295 2756

A new restaurant seems to open in Manuka every 10 minutes. So when we walk past the cinema and there is a new, unassuming-looking eatery around the corner from Charlie Black's, we stop to investigate.

Camellia Restaurant is next to the entrance to the Capitol cinema, with a sunken interior filled with tables covered with white linen. Outside there are more tables under the eaves, shaded from the heat of the setting sun and with a good view of Franklin Street.

The waiter is enthusiastic and cheerful, and chats with everyone who walks in.

Chicken katagesma arrives as an attractive trio.
Chicken katagesma arrives as an attractive trio. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

However, the menu is a little odd. It has a range of Sri Lankan dishes, curries and seafood and the like, and then a section of Western food such as beef fillet and steak. It is not clear why there is such a delineation. Is it to offer choices to diners who don't want Sri Lankan? Is it because the chef prides himself on his risottos and steak? In which case, why not just have a fully Western menu?

In any case, we go for the Sri Lankan section, because that half of the menu looks more interesting. Here we get a cheerful rundown of the dishes from the waiter and a couple of recommendations. The katagesma ($14.50) is billed as crispy fish, chicken or beef served with savoury rice. It comes as an attractive trio, a glass dish with a rocket and pear salad sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, a mound of golden, biryani-style rice, and a bowl of chicken with spicy sauce and wedges of capsicum. The dish is described as ''devilled'' chicken, but to me it seems to have more in common with Chinese sweet and sour chicken. The meat is tender and mild. There is no heat in the sticky, lemony sauce at all. The sliced red onion and capsicum add a bit of crunch and sweetness but no excitement.

The fish pan roll ($14.90) is better, like a cross between a croquette and a fish cake. The result is a deliciously golden, crunchy crust with a slightly floury fish and potato mixture inside. It comes with a tomato chutney sauce and a zingy salad with lettuce, carrot, pomegranate and a tart dressing.

Steamed coconut wandu with cardamom ice-cream.
Steamed coconut wandu with cardamom ice-cream. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

We also sip from a glass of arak ($7), which we are told is a traditional Sri Lankan liquor made from distilled coconut flowers. It sounds pretty exotic and the shimmery amber liquid is surprisingly gentle on the palate, like light, airy whisky.

On to the mains. Kottu roti ($24.90) turns out to be a big bowl of roti, vegetables, onion, and egg - all chopped up and scrambled together like an Asian street-food version of bubble and squeak. There is a dish of shredded cheese to garnish and a bowl of beef curry to accompany it.

It is a filling dish, the strips of roti, carrot, capsicum and other vegetables all coated in a curry spice mix that makes them all taste disappointingly uniform. The curry is rich and the beef is nicely slow-cooked, but it could do with more kick.

Camellia's owner Jagath Ranasingha.
Camellia's owner Jagath Ranasingha. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

String hoppers with chicken curry ($26.90) are a delightfully squidgy tangle, like a nest of rice vermicelli, and are wonderful for soaking up the mild chicken curry and hard-boiled egg halves. A handful of toasted coconut topping adds crunch and there is a serve of dhal for extra comfort.

By this time, the sun is well and truly sinking over the rooftops, and there is a steady parade of pedestrians strolling through Manuka for all your people-watching needs. Couples on date night cross the street from dinner at Belluci's to go to a movie, families trot by in groups arguing over whether the kids have been well behaved enough to deserve a burger and chips. Every now and then some wannabe hoon idles his hotted-up car down the street, perhaps hoping to catch the eye of a young public-service graduate on her first night out on the town. Camellia, like Saffron before it, is a nice spot for people-watching: sheltered from the wind but still warm to the sun and not too crowded.

For dessert, there is a small Sri Lankan selection plus a chocolate truffle cake. We choose the wandu, a steamed coconut cake served with a simple scoop of vanilla ice-cream ($9.90). It is a little tropical, a little different and quite a pleasant way to finish the meal.

This may not be fine dining by any means, but a lot of care has gone into the presentation of the food, with little glass pots and arrangements of platters.

The service is cheerful and the Sri Lankan dishes are a pleasant change from the standard pan-Italian or pan-Asian restaurants of the Manuka strip.