157 Fitzroy St St Kilda, VIC 3182
|Opening hours||Mon-Wed 5:00 – 10:30 PM, Thu-Fri & Sun 1:00 – 11:00 PM, Sat 5:00 – 11:00 PM|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Outdoor seating, Private dining, Pre-post-theatre, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Romance-first date, Degustation|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Sriyan Wedande, Geral Apponso|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9078 6757|
At Araliya St Kilda's next-door neighbour, Luxembourg - the newest pony in the Andrew McConnell stable - things are buzzing. Both bar and dining room are filling up and there are even a few people sitting outside drinking, despite the chill. At Araliya, where we are, not so much. In fact, at this point in the evening we're the only people in the large-ish room.
Admittedly it's early, and early in the week, and this glossy St Kilda outpost of the long-running Hawthorn Sri Lankan restaurant (it's turning 30 next year) has been open only a couple of months, but as we are tucking into an absolutely superb curried duck leg that's worth crossing town for, it begins to truly boggle the mind that there are not more people in here. Not a queue or any of that nonsense, just some more people. Surely we're not that spoiled for choice?
The duck is one of owner-chef Sam Wedande's signatures that have made their way over from Hawthorn, and it's a perfect example of how the man cooks, skilfully melding classic Euro technique with authentic Sri Lankan spicing. The confit duck leg (in duck fat, of course) has been slow-cooked in a sauce of stock and roasted spices - star anise and cinnamon the most prominent - to which house-made pineapple chutney is added. It's moist and tender, full of powerful but not overwhelming spicing, allowing the duck meat to have its say and, while it's certainly a little rich and fatty, it's rich and fatty in all the right places.
We've teamed the duck with some steamed and unpolished basmati rice and several side dishes, including a great combo of finely shaved brussels sprouts mixed with coconut and an equally fine side of green beans and cashews sauced with a turmeric-strong white curry. The flavours are light, vibrant and refreshing; mixing and matching these with the duck is what makes eating here so much fun.
The duck comes in two sizes, as do several other dishes, which is obviously part of a plan that involves hauling this version of Araliya into modern times and before a younger audience. Hence the flexible menu with an abundance of gluten-free and vegetarian options and smaller snacks that come under the heading "Short Eats & Sweet Meats" and, of course, include a pork slider (is there an emoticon version of the Silent Scream?), plus a drinks list that's big on spice-themed cocktails and has three Mountain Goat beers on tap.
Service, especially on the drinks front, needs work. The staff are charming enough, but if you're seeking to position yourself as a cocktail bar for young moderns in a city that's riddled with them, the small details - such as some kind of garnish on a $13.50 Hendricks G&T, and perhaps not filling it to the brim - need to be sorted.
The room certainly riffs on Melbourne dining now, with its prominent bar at the front lined with sleek, two-toned plywood bar stools, raised communal table sporting an up-to-the-minute terrarium, polished concrete floor, banquettes strewn with cushions, and a private dining area.
It's a good-looking space, and one that doesn't immediately suggest Sri Lanka. There are none of the theme park-like visual clues that Melburnians expect from their Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants (even after Tonka has proved you don't need them), which is perhaps why the crowd is thinner than it should be. Confusion, perhaps?
It's emphatically not the food. You'd come here for the snacks alone. There are brilliant lamb frikkadels, little flavour bombs of spiced lamb and potato fried inside a crust studded with fennel seeds; peppery-sweet jaggery beef made with wagyu brisket; and fish patties, parcels of shortcrust pastry flavoured with fennel, cumin and curry powder, wrapped around shredded blue-eye.
Desserts, such as a sticky-sweet version of the classic spiced love cake and a gorgeous dish of coconut and passionfruit parfait teamed with addictive, tangy lime meringues, tick the boxes right to the end.
By the time we leave there are a few more people in the house. The next table has ordered a fish roasted in banana leaves, and just the waft of it causes a serious case of dish envy. There's great stuff here. More of you should be enjoying it. Avoid the queue(s) and try this on for size.
Best bit... Excellent Sri Lankan food in a thoroughly modern setting.
Worst bit... Service that's not quite up to the ''modern'' brief.
Go-to dish... Curried duck leg with pineapple chutney, $32.