Patricia Podorsek with Monica Tindall
A little digging around on the internet turns up the fact that Sri Lanka has been known for centuries as “Gem Island,” prolific in producing gems of the highest quality for the world market. Stones like sapphires, rubies, and garnets are mined, cut, polished, and delivered to people of discerning taste.
A little digging around at Plaza Damansara turns up the restaurant gem, A Li Yaa, distinct for being the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Dishes like string hopper kothu, mutton paal poriyal, and brinjal moju are sourced, roasted, simmered, and delivered to people of discerning taste.
The humble storefront and concrete decor of A Li Yaa disguise the gourmet sapphire within. Everything about the place is understated, but classy: cement bar, pebbled floor, leather chairs, all cloaked in black and grey tones with only the occasional splash of red. Black and white photos of Cuban streets and colorful pictures of old Cuban ladies with fat cigars add a touch of vivacity to the otherwise muted atmosphere.
|A Li Yaa Island Restaurant and Bar|
|A Li Yaa Island Restaurant and Bar, Sri Lankan Cuisine|
Thirsty from a day at work, we began our tasting with three featured cocktails off the drinks menu. The Colombo Cup blends Mendis (Sri Lankan whisky) with dry vermouth, sweet and sour, ginger ale and bitters for a fun and bubbly refresher. The ginger ale provides a particularly festive kick.
The KoT, a combination of coconut, dark rum, and malibu, served in or out of a fresh coconut, was delicious and smooth, and had us looking around the room for the sand and palm trees.
The Elephant Walk, a fusion of Southern Comfort, ginger ale, bitters and lemon served in a tall
glass, takes a tip from old-school high-ball drinks: it reminded me of my parents playing bridge in the living room with friends.
Our culinary invitation for the evening had us tasting the new sharing menu, reasonably priced at RM158+ or RM98+ per person with/without wine. Appetizer number one, Rock and Roll, pairs a mixed cutlet of seafood, herbs, and potato with a spoonful of prawn cocktail. The cutlet begins with a speedy crunch and finishes with spicy heat that catches up like the tortoise after the hare. The prawn cocktail is reminiscent of north American slaw, with a little cabbage and spring onion mixed in with the seafood and tossed in a sweet thousand-island style of dressing.
|Rock and Roll Appetizer|
Appetizer number two, String Hopper Kothu, takes the Sri Lankan staple of idiyappam, or rice flour noodles, lightly fries them with seafood and vegetables, and serves them with fresh whole prawn and coconut curry. Four sambals accompany the meal, each offering a distinct addition to the subcontinental flavors. My favorites were the onion sambal and coconut sambal, sweet and spicy against the salty prawn.
|String Hopper Kothu|
The wine pairing for the appetizers is a zesty Western Australian Semillion-Sauvignon Blanc bottled by Karri Oak. A fresh and easy wine, we found it tropical on the nose with hints of passion fruit and kiwi, and crisp on the palate, slightly tart with undertones of grapefruit and gooseberry.
|Karri Oak White Wine|
Perhaps more than its reputation for gems, Sri Lanka is also known for its spices: cinnamon, pepper, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and vanilla grace its fields and markets, as well as gracing the curries and sauces of A Li Yaa. The sharing menu spotlights five different exotic main dishes that capitalize on this vast legacy of spice.
|A Sri Lankan Feast|
The Mutton Paal Poriyal arrives unassumingly to the table, giving little indication of the complexity of its preparation or the depth of its flavor. First boiled, then fried, then rolled in spices and cooked again with a little coconut milk, this dry curry is a hidden gem of its own, not unlike the restaurant itself. The meat is tender and moist without being stringy, and flavorful with some secret magic of spices known intuitively to Sri Lankan chefs.
|Mutton Paal Poriyal|
The Fish Sothi offers a South Asian-style gravy, enchanting with its blend of coconut cream, spice and tang. Made from the dried assam fruit, it is a little zesty like sauces made from tamarind, but slightly more sour and rounded out with cumin, mustard and other spices. I was so enamoured by the levels of the sothi sauce that I continued to eat spoonfuls of it even after the fish was gone!
The Brinjal Moju takes strips of small aubergine and slow cooks them with tangy tamarind powder, mustard seeds, curry leaf and onion to the point of caramelizing. The resulting sticky dish uplifts the taste buds with deep flavors of sweet and spice, followed by a little chili heat.
The centerpiece mains showcase two regional curry sauces of Sri Lanka. First, the Jafna-style Prawn Curry blankets jumbo tiger prawns in a creamy coconut gravy flavored by raw spices and a something a little tart, possibly tamarind or assam fruit. By contrast, the spectacular Sri Lankan Crab Curry seasons its own rich gravy with roasted spices like cinnamon and cardamom for a dark enigmatic curry experience reminiscent of Mexican mole.
|Jafna-style Prawn Curry|
|Sri Lankan Crab Curry|
Although I couldn’t get enough of the sauces by the spoonful, most guests will find the Doosra Roti a delightful dipping tool for the curries. These flat breads are seasoned with green curry leaf and grated coconut then lightly pan-fried for a crisp exterior and flaky interior. Steamed rice also helps to ensure that very little of the amazing curries go to waste.
The mains are purportedly paired with Oddfellow Cabernet Sauvignon, but as it was in short supply, our hosts served the amiable Karri Oak Shiraz 2011, a young wine with fresh and simple flavors that remained unconflicting with the complexity of the food.
Fit to burst, we (happily) stretched our stomachs to take in The Sweet Ending times two. The first offering, Sweet Appam, is a dosai-style shell filled with thickened coconut milk and palm sugar atop an idli-style pancake, not unlike eating rice pudding in a crisp cone. The second, Vatila Appam, is a flan-style pudding served attractively in three layers of cinnamon, cardamom, and cream without being too sweet.
The upper floor of A Li Yaa opens later in the evenings as a neighborhood hang-out. The bar is long and inviting and so is the cigar selection. The drinks menu boasts a nice selection of mocktails, including Virgin Mojitos, lassi, fresh coconut, and freshly made juices, in addition to their signature cocktails. A separate room for private parties adjoins the main lounge with its own bar and seating for about 30-40.
If you’re a food miner like we are, digging for the star ruby of Sri Lankan cuisine in KL, turn yourself up at A Li Yaa, the Island Restaurant and Bar, where you’ll find crystal clear reasons to keep coming back.
Reasons to visit: Tangy Fish Sothi, tender Mutton Paal Poriyal, and the dark enigmatic Crab Curry.
A Li Yaa Island Restaurant and Bar
Jalan Medan Setia 2
Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur
+6 03 2092 5378