Priyani Oriental Cafe is tucked into the tiny back corner of a parking lot, wedged between an Indian/Pakistani supermarket and a fence. It’s actually a chunk of the supermarket, walled off into a separate space, and lovingly made as cozy as possible. There are leather couches, hanging bamboo mats, red paper lanterns and a flat-screen TV playing softly in the background. But you can still spot the supermarket giveaway -- the floor is that same industrial white linoleum.
But the heart of Priyani Cafe is the intense, lusty, densely flavored Sri Lankan cooking of owner Priyani Dissanayake. It’s as if the food were made for you by your grandmother from the old country who also happens to be a professional chef. Because that’s exactly what Dissanayake is: an immigrant from Sri Lanka, a former chef at a Beverly Hills hotel and now proprietor of her own Sri Lankan restaurant.
Ordering here is a complex process of investigation, negotiation and outright luck. There isn’t really a fixed menu. There’s a little glossy flier with vague descriptions of some dishes -- “pork curry,” “lamb curry” -- but it’s a pretty poor indicator of what’s available on any given day.
Priyani, like a good jazz club, is unpredictable. The number of curries and biryanis the kitchen turns out on different days can seem infinite and varies wildly by the whim of the cook. You cannot go to Priyani expecting a particular dish or a particular mood; you have to be open. And be ready, because Priyani’s Sri Lankan cooking pulls no punches. There are delicate saffron aromas alongside pungently fermented sauces, enormous bursts of cardamom followed by intense, clarifying shots of bitter melon -- hitting your palate all at once.
One day, “pork curry” will turn out to be thin slices of tender pork, simmered with turmeric and onions, both delicate and heady, topped with a cold slaw of raw pineapple, tomato and vinegary red onion. Another day, ordering “pork curry” will get you cubes of pork in a dry, dense, gorgeously complex spice paste, cooked down to a concentrated, near jerky-like chew, with the deep flavor of cinnamon soaking through everything. Or you might get a stew, with bits of tender, melting pork floating in spicy, funky, clove-drenched soup, so deeply smoky and porky it’s like bacon consommé.
You’re likely to get all the flavors of Sri Lanka’s historical trading partners at once -- Indian spices, Malaysian fish sauces, Indonesian coconut milk curries, Chinese soy sauces and a dash of something subtly European, from the waves of Dutch, Portuguese and British colonists. And, binding it all together, there’s some serious chile burn.
The procedure here is A.I.D.I.: Ask, Investigate, but Don’t Insist. Half of the time your server will be one of the cooks. You will ask what he has that day. The server will name a few dishes. You will press your server for more dishes. “Do you have any lamb today?” you might ask. And he might check in the back and discover that, in fact, one of the other cooks did in fact make a lamb curry, and it’s still simmering away.
But don’t push too far, because then the worst will happen, which is, that you will get exactly what you asked for. This is bad, because Sri Lankan curries are complex, long-cooked affairs. If you ask for something they haven’t carefully made, they’ll slap it together fast, but it’ll be about a tenth as good as the stuff that’s been simmering for hours.
There are a few dishes you can get every day. The appetizers -- mostly various baked and fried little pastries -- are always available, and always wonderful. Cutlet, the core of the appetizer experience, is a heavily spiced beef and potato croquette. Pattis are small baked pastries, stuffed with chicken and chile. The chicken is shredded and fine, all the better to contrast against the buttery, stretchy, softly chewy pastry dough. Priyani makes all manner of stuffed roti too: crepe-like pancakes, thick and beautifully springy, like a single strand from some gigantic croissant.
And you can always get kotthu roti, which has a delightfully odd texture. It’s slices of those same thick, crepe-like pancakes, chopped up and stir-fried with egg and onions and other tidbits. It’s springy, chewy and utterly charming.
Then there’s that uniquely Sri Lankan tidbit: string hoppers, possibly the greatest tool for eating with your fingers known to man. They’re small steamed rice vermicelli noodles, pressed together into thin little noodley pancakes that you use to scoop up your food. They’re dense, stringy and unnervingly fun. Traditionally, they’re a breakfast item, but it’s absolutely fine to ask for them with any meal.
If you’re lucky, and come often, then the kitchen may send out some of the truly intense, rustic dishes of Sri Lanka -- like bitter melon curry, brutally bitter and almost painfully clarifying, like a gin and tonic with the volume turned on high, but spicy. It’s satisfying the way a well-tuned spicy dish can be: wonderful for its tough love.