17 Kennedy St Kingston, ACT 2604
|Opening hours||Lunch: Wednesday to Saturday noon-2pm. Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6pm til late.|
|Phone||02 6101 2713|
Sri Lankan food seems to be the talk of the dining scene at the moment. Having spent three years living there, it's great to see the cuisine growing in popularity. I guess it's no surprise that it's finally caught on – there are more than 170,000 Sri Lankans living in Australia and the country keeps topping destination lists, including Lonely Planet's best in travel 2019.
Canberra's Banana Leaf seems to have been well ahead of the times. Now 14 years old, it's been serving up refined versions of traditional Sri Lankan dishes since before it was in vogue. Formerly in the city, the restaurant has found its new home in a softly lit, exposed brick dining room in the Kingston shops after the building it was in was scheduled to be demolished.
The menu pays homage to the casual homestyle food of Sri Lanka, taking street snacks, bar food and transforming them into elegant entrees. Family favourites and curries feature through the mains and there are some more Western-influenced dishes like spiced barramundi with mashed sweet potato for the less intrepid. There are plenty of options for vegans and vegetarians, and the rice and coconut-based cuisine means the gluten intolerant is spoilt for choice.
Service is friendly and fun, though perhaps a little too familiar. Our waitress today has firm ideas about what we should try, and with so many choices, we let her make the difficult decisions for us – though in hindsight, if there's something you're really keen to try, perhaps it's best to stick to your guns.
Many nationalities have passed through Sri Lanka and influenced its cuisine, evidenced by the many colloquialisms peppered through its food language: Chinese rolls, Malay pickles and lamprais (from the Dutch word lomprijst, meaning packet of food); chicken pan rolls or Chinese rolls ($15.90) are a Sri Lankan version of a spring roll – curried chicken and potatoes wrapped in a thin crepe, crumbed and deep fried. A delicious twist on a favourite street snack – tomato sauce may seem like a strange accompaniment, but that's the norm on the street and they've kept to that here. It's finessed but familiar, up-styled street food done well.
Chilli and honey squid ($16.90) is a classic bar snack turned entrée – sweet, salty and fishy squid rings tossed with onion, garlic and chilli and served in a roti bowl.
Late night street food, kottu rotti ($28.90) has been given the attention it deserves, transforming it from a carb-heavy post-drinking snack to an elegant main. Strips of roti are tossed with vegetables and a generous amount of chicken, gently dressed in a curry sauce.
Don't be too disappointed if you don't see the Sri Lankan classic devilled fish on the menu, here it's called yaka ge kaama ($29.90), an affectionate twist on the word yaka (meaning devil in Sinhalese). The best part is the perfectly crisp hopper with a pillowy centre; it's not a traditional pairing but it works well. With hoppers such an iconic Sri Lankan dish, and Banana's leaf being so good, it's a shame that it doesn't offer it as an add-on side – I would have happily devoured a pile of them.
Another classic, the string hoppers ($29.90) come with all the fixings – dahl, coconut sambol and your choice of curry. The sambol is made from desiccated, not fresh coconut, but it's probably not particularly easy to source freshly grated coconut in Canberra.
Sri Lankan love cake makes for a simple end to the night; the gluten-free cashew and semolina cake is chewy and moreish. Paired with vanilla ice cream and crunchy strips of what seems to be pappadums, it's a definite step up on a family favourite.
It's always a challenge to take the rich, loud and all-consuming experience of a country's street food scene and transform it into a seated dining experience, but Banana Leaf has managed to do it well.
The food is refined, and there's a healthy respect for tradition in the solid execution of cornerstone dishes like hoppers, string hoppers and kottu roti.