By Miles Clements
April 29, 2009
After Wadiya chef-owner Chintheka Ganasekera spent years behind the steam tables and hotel pans of the catering business, his utopian vision became a reality mere months ago. That Wadiya is Orange County's sole Sri Lankan restaurant only seems to inspire the kitchen: It doesn't filter or blunt its cooking, instead proudly presenting a cuisine that, even with its Indian and Indonesian influences, remains completely distinct.
Lamprais, a hybrid dish of Dutch origins, is an essential here. At first sight it looks like a gift, the lamprais' banana-leaf exterior folded up like wrapping paper. Tear open that shell and you'll find plenty of presents inside: a bed of basmati rice topped with tender roast chicken, caramelized onions hit with a hint of heat, strips of eggplant rendered down to a dark, date-like sweetness, a hard-boiled egg and a fish croquette. Served on the street, the banana leaf becomes a biodegradable delivery device that affords the dish some portability. But at Wadiya, the banana leaf has a more dramatic role -- an earthy curtain that's peeled back to reveal an excellent meal that can easily feed two.
Similar to the lamprais is the persistently spicy biryani. It's another offering built upon rice, which in this case is stained a faint orange from a pinch of saffron and chiles. Molded into a plate-dominating pyramid, the rice is studded with cashews, raisins, onions and either crisp fried chicken, mutton or vegetables. All of the restaurant's renditions are good, but expect them to have some heat -- the biryani can sting.
If you're looking to dodge the burn, order the ambul thiyal, a slightly sour fish curry. Draped over buttery blocks of tuna, the curry earns its distinctive flavor from goraka, a banana-yellow fruit related to the mangosteen. Goraka has a citrus-like tang that recalls equal parts tamarind and lemongrass. Because that flavor is carefully moderated, it gives the ambul thiyal a nice tart edge that sets it apart from the usual curry crowd.
For a hands-on experience, try the hoppers. They arrive in bunches, bowl-shaped pancakes of fermented rice flour into which you spoon curries and spicy sambals. There isn't just a single iteration, either -- some hoppers are cooked with eggs cracked into their concave centers, while others are formed from rice noodles curled into coaster-sized circles. Hoppers make it onto the regular menu, but they're best eaten during the restaurant's Friday dinner buffet when they're bused to the table like fresh tortillas.
Wadiya also offers a weekday lunch buffet and weekend dinner buffets, though the restaurant's best dishes are usually those found on the menu. Still, it's during those all-you-can-eat hours that the restaurant is most animated, filled with families rearranging tables to accommodate time-insensitive relatives and couples angling to taste each other's plates.
Most meals here end with a shot of jaggery, an unrefined sugar found in both the eponymous jaggery cake and the watalappan, a toffee-colored custard. But for those trying to shake the sugar, even a final sip of ginger beer can provide a fitting end at Wadiya -- a sweet soda that bubbles with a touch of the tropics.
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