Turn up the heat
Sri Lankan dishes come alive at Spicy Leaves in Los Altos
For once, the name of a restaurant gives you a hint about what to expect. The Sri Lankan food at Los Altos' Spicy Leaves, our one and only local Sri Lankan restaurant, is a little spicy.
Frequently called "the teardrop of India" because of its geography and history, the island nation formerly named Ceylon has a lot going for its cuisine. Manager Haran Shaik and chef Rajesh Selvarathnam are gradually upping the Sri Lankan quotient of the menu at Spicy Leaves, which also features local favorite Indian foods like butter chicken and lots of vegetarian dishes.
Soon there will be string hoppers, the thin rice noodles I've been pining for since being introduced at a short-lived Sri Lankan restaurant in San Jose. They soak up sauce but retain their integrity.
For now, that job is accomplished by rice and Spicy Leaves' range of very good flatbreads, from plain naan ($2.25) to a sweet Peshawari naan ($3.95) stuffed with nuts and dried fruits, glazed in honey and butter. Ajwaiu paratha ($3.95) is made from whole wheat flour sprinkled with aromatic, caraway-like ajwaiu fruit.
While perusing the menu, nibble on crisp, cone-shaped lentil wafers with very good tamarind and cilantro chutneys.
The lunch buffet ($10.95) is a good way to sample both Sri Lankan and Indian sides of the menu. Have a little green salad and all the naan you can eat, but on our visit many of the dishes, including naan, were impoverished by being just lukewarm.
Best were creamy butter chicken, juicy tandoori chicken, and bengan bharta, in which eggplant is cooked down to a smoky jam with onions and garlic. I would go back and order each of those dishes.
My advice is to get a table where you can see buffet dishes as they are replenished, and eat accordingly. As it happened, the gulab jaman dessert, deep-fried milk balls that often are sticky and heavy, had just come from the fryer to the buffet table and were delicious.
Spicy Leaves' soups ($3.50) include the traditional mulligatawany and an intriguing pumpkin-carrot. The chef's chicken soup is well-stocked with tender pieces of breast meat, little curls of ramen-type noodles, corn, green beans and cilantro. It's like a Thai coconut milk soup.
Sri Lankan chicken curry ($13.95) also has coconut inflections, two drumsticks slathered in a thick, salty-spicy-sweet tomato-onion curry.
Soupy yellow dal also has a nice kick. Pour some over rice.
Sri Lankan fish curry, made with tilapia ($12.95) packs a mouthful of harmonious spices including tiny cardamom seeds, tomato and coconut milk. Sri Lankan fish mackerel and potato cutlets ($4.95) were heavy and oily.
From the tandoor oven, chicken tikka kebabs ($13.95) were served on a sizzling platter with raw onions that keep cooking, and a lime for squeezing. Big, boneless hunks of breast meat were tender, the juices held in by slightly charred edges.
There wasn't a lot of meat in the lamb biryani ($13.95), but it too was boneless and tender, nestled in fluffy rice.
Most of the appetizers and a half-dozen entrees are vegetarian (all $9.95), including a cheese dish and a marinated cauliflower entree from the tandoor oven. Nafiz palak paneer sets chunks of slightly sour farmer's cheese into a bath of spicy spinach.
After all these acidic, fruity, spicy flavors, a palate-cleansing dessert seems like a good idea. Disappointingly, the restaurant was out of its signature dessert, wattalappum ($4.50), the Sri Lankan creme caramel. To compensate, the cheerful host gave us a surprisingly light and aromatic rice pudding.
Amid the restaurant row at the Village Court Shopping Center, Spicy Leaves is not a decor standout. The carpet, the banquet chairs, the handful of design touches feel tired. Maybe they are leftovers from the previous tenant, Bombay Cafe.
Restrooms are upstairs. Note the "Watch your step" sign on the way down.
The first people of Sri Lanka were the Sinhalese, from Northern India. From the 16th century until independence in 1948, the island was ruled by a succession of Europeans: Portuguese, Dutch and British. But if Sri Lanka rings a bell today, it is probably because of the horrible, ongoing ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists.
Now we have a happier reason to think of Sri Lanka. Bring on the string hoppers!
4546 El Camino Real, Los Altos
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Daily
Dinner: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday