You don’t need to be familiar with Sri Lankan cuisine to enjoy its bright, complex flavors. At Suvaai in North Cambridge you are in friendly and experienced hands.
The newest venture of chef-owner Premila Mathews, Suvaai (the word means “tasty” in Tamil, the owner’s native language) is housed in the space that once was Curry N Wok. When it became available last year, the restaurateur jumped at the opportunity, bringing on board chef Shylock Selvaraj, from Qatar, to round out the kitchen. Mathews had run Biryani Park in Malden and closed it two years ago to find a venue closer to where most of her customers live.
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Two months have passed since Mathews opened her doors a dozen blocks from the Porter Square T stop, and the transformation is not quite complete. The old Curry N Wok sign still hangs above the door. Contrary to the information listed on the restaurant’s website and printed menus, the lunch buffet only operates Friday through Sunday (at least for now) and a second location of Suvaai in Woburn (the now-shuttered Indian Express) has yet to open.
Overlook these details and dive in. Sri Lankan coconut rotis ($13.99 for the vegetarian platter) are made of coarsely ground rice and grated coconut. The substantial rounds sit in the center of the plate, surrounded by dollops of pureed sweet potato dotted with black mustard seeds, a vivid red-tomato curry, stewed shreds of cabbage, and a grated coconut sambal that’s fiery with minced chiles. Fans of South Indian cuisine will recognize many of the seasonings, but the fare of Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island nation off the southeastern tip of India, is full of dishes that are unique.
String hoppers, for example, are palm-size nests of vermicelli made from red rice, designed to be grasped and used to scoop up various curries arrayed on the plate. A platter that includes curried poultry ($15.99) features cleavered chunks of chicken (watch for bones) in sauce, alongside soft-cooked green beans, Brussels sprouts, and tomato-stewed eggplant. Most flavors here are deeply savory rather than spicy with chile heat. Sri Lankan masala lamb ($15.99, seafood and beef versions also available; all meat is halal) is sauced with a curry crafted from 15 spices, including ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon.
The menu features more than a dozen dosas, crepes made of lentils and rice. Some are tented like party hats, others resemble loosely rolled scrolls. Onion rava semolina masala dosa ($9.99), lacy in texture, drapes over cheery yellow turmeric-spiced potatoes and onions dotted with crunchy fenugreek seeds. Tear off a piece of the crepe, pick up a bit of filling, then dip the morsel into a saucy brown curry, served alongside in a heated metal bowl, so hot that it nearly burns the clear plastic tablecloth.
Dishes from South India, such as mixed vegetable pakoda ($5.99), battered ribbons of onion and green pepper, and samosas ($5.99 for two) are fine, but less interesting to our tablemates than the Sri Lankan selections. But two soups distinguish themselves. Rasam ($3.99) is a tart broth spiked with tamarind juice and chiles; attukal ($5.99) offers a fragrant bowl of lamb seasoned with peppercorns, coriander, and cumin.
The menu is voluminous, and not every dish is available every night. Banquettes only seat four people comfortably (five can be accommodated if a server retrieves a chair from a stack near the entrance). Pack some patience; the place operates with a skeleton crew. Order a creamy mango lassi ($3.99) or a freshly squeezed juice ($3.99) like papaya-pineapple, and settle in for a wait.
Wattalappam ($4.99), a coconut-milk custard, is presented like flan with palm sugar syrup and a cashew nut adorning the top. Treat yourself. You have dramatically expanded your familiarity with this vibrant cuisine.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at [email protected]