252 St Georges Rd Fitzroy North, VIC 3068
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun 11am-3pm, 5.30pm-9.30pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Cheap Eats, Cheap and cheerful|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 7012 7601|
What does it say about a restaurant when they print a quote from a regular customer on the back of the staff T-shirt? When the text is "It's amazing, as always," I think it says a lot. That's what diner Annaliese exclaims every time she makes one of her frequent visits to Citrus, a cheap, busy, friendly Sri Lankan buffet restaurant that's made this inner-north corner smell like curry leaves and sound like fun.
The Somaweera family opened Citrus a year ago with a hybrid menu of American burgers and Sri Lankan specialties. Locals soon made it clear that the subcontinental stuff was floating their boats. The burgers were ditched, the Sri Lankan food was amped up and the a la carte offering turned into a generous buffet.
The system is simple. You pay for a plate and the right to fill it up as many times as you like. Most days, there are 14 food warmers lined up along the front window. There's also a table laden with condiments and pappadams, and a separate table for wattalapam, Sri Lanka's jaggery-sweetened answer to creme caramel. It's epic and instantly overwhelming.
Fill your plate (not too full, you can come back!) then take it to a table to eat. Depending on numbers, you may be asked to share a table.
There's always rice, a yellow lentil dal, and curry with mixed vegetables. On Saturdays, there will probably be another vegetable curry with cashews.
Other favourites include battered fish stir-fried with capsicum and onion, slow-cooked gravy beef in a dark, cardamom-scented curry and chicken thigh pieces in a chilli-bright coconut sauce.
Spicing is generally mild and the Sri Lankan penchant for coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and curry leaves shines through.
Some dishes are adapted for Fitzroy North's strong vegan cohort. Koththu could be called Sri Lanka's national dish – you see it made on the streets by cooks with small cleavers used to percussively chop shredded roti, egg and meat on a flat grill. You don't get the street food theatre here and the vegan version subs in extra veg for the egg and meat. It's good but I reckon the original is tastier.
I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks the Sri Lankan approach to condiments is one of the great joys in world cuisine. The range changes but you can count on a chutney made with ambarella, a tropical fruit a bit like green mango.
There will also be coconut sambol, chilli paste and an eggplant chutney that brings extra richness to every dish you dress with it.
There aren't any rules about how best to attack this extraordinary array but head chef (and mother of the waiters) Shiyamalee Somaweera reckons you should mix everything into a messy melange. However you do it, it's tasty and satisfying.
Citrus isn't a hang-around-all-night kind of place, partly because you need a long walk or a big nap after filling up and also because there's often a queue at the door: no-one wants to watch hungry anticipation morph into death-staring hangry rage.
It will be interesting to see if the pace changes after a liquor licence comes through and the restaurant starts offering Sri Lankan lagers and stouts, and a traditional version of arak made with coconut nectar.
Whatever happens, the customer-pleasing ethic is strong. I bet Annaliese will keep saying, "It's amazing, as always."
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five).