Ravindu Somaweera is 24 years old and has been in Australia for just three years, but he’s already a restaurateur. He co-owns Citrus, a Sri Lankan diner in Fitzroy North, with his sister Mansala, mum Shiyamalee and dad Keerthi.
The staff is “just the family”, says Ravindu, who manages front-of-house with Mansala, while Shiyamalee and Keerthi run the kitchen.
Shiyamalee is the head chef and was taught to cook by her older sister Priyanthi, the head chef and co-owner of Chef Lanka, a Sri Lankan restaurant with three Melbourne locations. The Somaweera family had been working there since arriving in Australia from Sri Lanka, before deciding to go into business together at Citrus.
The family lives in Pascoe Vale but saw a hopper-sized hole in the Fitzroy North market. When some friends decided to move on from their corner site adjacent Piedimonte’s, the family jumped.
Originally called Citrus Gate, the restaurant started with an à la carte menu of burgers and a few Sri Lankan dishes, but it became clear pretty quickly that the Sri Lankan food was more in demand. They scrapped the Western dishes and added a buffet – typical in Sri Lanka for lunch, the biggest meal of the day.
“We weren’t sure if it was going to be successful,” says Ravindu. “It was really slow at the start … but once [the locals] got to know the flavours, word-of-mouth did the trick and now someone brings someone new every day. It’s getting really busy now, and mum’s happy because everyone’s liking the food.”
At lunch and dinner, you’ll find 15 or so dishes from all over the island country. A vegetarian combo plate is $10, or you can get an all-you-can-eat feast for $15. It’s the deal of the century.
Pick up a plate and lay your foundation with two types of rice – saffron and vegetable. Then, remembering to take small scoops to fit everything in, hit each bain-marie for an assortment of dishes that change daily, including yellow-lentil curry, spiced potatoes, fried soy beans, hot buttered fish with peppers, devilled chicken, slow-cooked beef curry, cashew and turmeric curry, green beans with curry leaves and coconut milk, and more.
Next, swing around the island bench and find room for spicy coconut sambol, chilli paste, and chutney made from ambarella, a small green tropical stone fruit that tastes like a fibrous pear when stewed. If you’ve got questions, whoever’s working front-of-house will explain and lead you through the line-up.
Wash it all down with a mango lassi (Ravindu admits this is traditionally Indian, but delicious and popular in Sri Lanka nonetheless), fresh juice or one of the many bottled Sri Lankan soft drinks in the front display.
“Ginger beer is the most popular there,” Ravindu says. “They say that without ginger beer [a meal] is not complete.”
For Ravindu, the ingredients in Australia sometimes leave him missing some of his favourites from home, such as jackfruit curry. He says jackfruit is more expensive here, but you’ll occasionally find it on the Saturday-night menu, when the buffet costs $19.90 instead of $15.
Citrus’s dry spices and coconut milk are imported from Sri Lanka, so the flavours are as close to what the Somaweeras ate in their home town of Kandy in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands as possible. The difference here is that Shiyamalee works to ensure every dish is gluten-free, and all the non-meat dishes are vegan.
She’s also made many of the buffet curries mild, so diners can add chilli to taste. It’s what Shiyamalee is used to cooking for her children. “I like mild, I don’t like spicy,” Ravindu says, giggling.
252 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North
(03) 7012 7601
Mon to Sun 9am–9pm