The saga is over. After two years of venue searching, market-stall trials and an infuriating last-minute gas-related hurdle (installation then certification), O Tama Carey’s Sri Lankan restaurant and bar, Lankan Filling Station, is finally opening.
While the launch has been a long time coming, it’s hard pin down the exact reason for the palpable sense of excitement about this tiny, good-looking restaurant on the city fringe – there’s no multimillion-dollar expansion or big-name overseas chefs here.
It could be Carey’s prowess as the former head chef of the now-closed Berta, or perhaps it’s the rare chance to eat good quality Sri Lankan food in inner Sydney (though it’s well-represented elsewhere in the city by old-school joints such as X Dreams in Toongabbie or Thornleigh’s Blue Elephant. That Carey and her expert team – Iris Rees (Fred’s, Cho Cho San) as manager-sommelier and Jemma Whiteman (Pinbone) as head chef – are enormously well-liked surely helps, too.
But what about the food?
“It's pretty traditional,” says Carey. “Most of the recipes I learnt [in Sri Lanka]. Well, then again, there is olive oil on our pickles. I wouldn't go around saying we're fusion, though,” she says.
There are the dishes you can eat solo: hoppers (cup-shaped rice-flour crepes), pan rolls (like a flakier Sri Lankan-style spring roll), spicy deep-fried crab balls, and swirly chickpea fritters. And then there is a traditional Sri Lankan-style dinner comprising a couple of curries, such as a dry mutton curry or a fiery and tart prawn curry; some pickles; a sambol or two; and vegetables, such as green spinach with chilli or tangy tamarind and tomato eggplant. Add in hoppers to soak, dip and scoop it all up.
“It's similar to how you eat Thai food – it's always a combination of a million things,” says Carey. “I often think the balance of flavours is a bit Thai in style too, with a balance of heat, sourness and freshness.
“The great thing about Sri Lankan food is that it is fusion anyway. There's Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese. I want to give a snapshot of everything you can get there.”
And while it might be traditional in a food sense, this may be the only place in Australia you can order a sambol-splattered egg hopper with a minimal-intervention wine by the glass, or a custom-blended Sri Lankan tea (sold retail, too) and down both over a polished-concrete bar backed by a sleek fit-out by David Mitchell Architects.
“We’re not trying to be fancy, we just want to be a curry shop,” says Carey. “I want people to use it like a Chinatown restaurant, where you can pop in and pop out. It's always going to be there and there will always be the same thing on the menu. That's how I eat.”
And it looks like that’s how many Sydneysiders will too from now on.
Lankan Filling Station
Ground Floor, 58 Riley Street, Darlinghurst
(02) 8542 9936
Tue to Fri 12pm–10pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 27, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.