It’s no longer necessary to drag your ass to Staten Island to get great Sri Lankan food. Bownie Restaurant is the latest addition to 45th Avenue’s fledgling restaurant row, which begins at the corner of Bowne Street and heads eastward. This promising strip is already home to a branch of Dosa Hutt with an expanded menu, a Thai/Burmese/Chinese café adept at fresh fish, and a bustling Colombian bakery and coffee shop. At Bownie (a playful adaptation of “Bowne,” or merely a misspelling?), Sunday is the only day you can get appams—wonderful bowl-shaped flatbreads that can be ordered plain ($2.50 per pair), or with a runny egg melded to the bottom ($2 each).
In Sri Lankan cooking, starch drives the meal. An enormous plate of white rice accompanies the curries ($7-$8), which are pungent enough to stand the dilution. The goat curry in particular stands out: carefully trimmed minichunks in a midnight-brown sauce that provides a delayed but substantial burn. The rich color results from the Ceylonese practice of pan-toasting spices almost to blackness before stirring them in. The kingfish curry, while partaking of the pungent oiliness of that tropical favorite, doesn’t quite match the creamy, coconut-laced version at Staten Island’s New Asha Café. “It’s made with a baby fish,” the waiter solemnly warned as we placed the order. If you want something even funkier in the fish department, choose malubun, a bread reminiscent of dinner rolls stuffed with some of the skankiest canned sardines imaginable. Yum!
For reasons of vegetarianism or economy, many patrons skip the curries entirely. New to the city’s Sri Lankan menus is the southern Indian favorite curd rice ($4), which doesn’t look anything like its name. The tart and loose rice pudding reclines seductively on the plate, laced with black mustard seeds and curry leaves. A strict vegetarian in our party wrinkled up her nose at first taste, but was soon knocking back a lumberjack-size portion. A more mind-boggling novelty is puttu ($3), which we ordered without any idea what it was, spouting inane jokes. A hush fell over the table when the sienna cylinder showed up. Crumbly and moist, it had the texture of brown sugar, and came heaped with a dandruff-like powder that turned out to be grated coconut. We later learned the puttu was made with brown rice. The waitress begged us to pour gravy on it, but so compelling was the flavor and texture, we gobbled it dry.
While the food at MANNA (289 Mercer Street, 473-6162) hardly matches its biblical counterpart, it’s pretty darn good anyway, and cheap for Korean fare. Priced around $10, the bento boxes contain 10 or more dishes, including pickles, kimchees, sautéed mushrooms, black-sesame rice, bean-thread vermicelli dressed with sesame oil, miso soup, and a generous heap of meat. The pork, which is a lot like bacon, is particularly good. Other favorites include a special of soft bean curd, sprouts, and rice in a sputtering stone crock. Stir in the raw egg to thicken the stew.
There are now at least 10 Siamese cafés in Williamsburg and its northern suburb of Greenpoint. In the latter locale we find MOON SHADOW (843 Manhattan Avenue, 718-609-1841). Prepared for disappointment, I was impressed with the sharpness of its flavors and the freshness of the fixin’s, even at off-peak hours. The luncheon special ($5.75, served until 4 p.m.) is a particularly good deal, featuring an egg roll and peanut-dressed salad in addition to a choice of main dishes. Otherwise, rice-sided entrées like Masaman curry and red snapper fillet with tamarind sauce run $7 to $11.