A devil’s face with goggle eyes and swollen tongue stares from the window of Kottu House. It’s only a vinyl decal, meant to evoke the wooden masks — often flanked by cobras, peacocks or flames — that guard the entrances of Sinhalese homes in Sri Lanka, warding off evil.
Inside, the same face is projected above the bar in random glow-stick colors, to the low pulse of trance music.
Apart from a Buddha statue in a corner, Kottu House doesn’t abide by the usual tropes of New York City’s Sri Lankan restaurants, many of which are clustered in Tompkinsville, on the northeastern shore of Staten Island. There, they cater primarily to the neighborhood’s population of some 5,000 Sri Lankans. Chelaka Gunamuni, who opened Kottu House in March on the Lower East Side, seeks a wider audience.
He arrived on Staten Island at age 15, after a childhood divided between Panadura, on Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast, and Milan, where his mother and his uncle ran a restaurant. Now 30, he lives a few blocks from Kottu House, which serves as a bridge of sorts, between generations and worlds.
On the wall, demure black-and-white ancestral portraits are mixed with snaps of young men clowning for the camera. With his mother, Sandya De Silva, known as Madu, ensconced in the kitchen, Mr. Gunamuni tends to the front of the house — all three tables of it — in stubbly beard and tattoos, one a recent birthday gift from his wife. They’re expecting their first child next month. It is an ambitious time.
The short menu focuses on kottu, a Sri Lankan street food assembled along the lines of fried rice or chow fun, with shreds of godamba roti, a griddled flatbread, in lieu of rice or noodles. (A version with mung-bean noodles is also offered, perhaps in deference to the regulars at Babycakes, the longstanding gluten-free bakery next door.) In the morning, Ms. De Silva cooks several curries and sets them aside, letting the flavors multiply. Each kottu is made to order, beginning with a sauté of onions, garlic and ginger, followed by cabbage, tatters of roti and scrambled eggs. Curry is added last, along with a toss of finely chopped carrots and leeks, crunchy streaks through the hash.
Not all kottus are equal. Those made with chicken and tofu have a pleasing tug of bitterness, from Sri Lankan curry powder roasted until it’s as dark as coffee. Crispy prawns take a gentler roast, but they gain creaminess from a more liberal helping of coconut milk. The stealth ingredient is tomato sauce, a souvenir from Ms. De Silva’s time in Italy, albeit missing Mediterranean herbs. It infiltrates kottus strewn with beef and tilapia, along with fat tomato wedges, still juicy, that offset the salt.
This is intriguing, but a maverick kottu called the Little Italy is not. Littered with shards of chicken sausage, it calls to mind a dismantled pizza, less deconstructed than slasher victim.
Appetizers are a parade from the fryer: disks of lentils; slim wallets of ground beef, haunted by carrots; little spheres of salmon “cutlets,” with crisp, bristling shells and velvety insides. Calamari come ornamented with paprika and frankly hot Sri Lankan chile powder. Sadly, an even hotter early edition, riddled with green chile, was recalibrated after diners found it too spicy. Better to do the recalibrating yourself, with dabs of minchi sambol, a beautifully bright paste of fresh grated coconut and lime; or pol sambol, a tumble of red onion and tomato; or, racked by chile, the ruthless conflagration that is lunu sambol.
Traditional touches include tea presented with jaggery (palm sugar); Lion Stout, brewed in Sri Lanka, on draft; and, for dessert, watalappan, a cardamom-scented coconut-milk flan, seeded with cashews crushed and whole. But there is also a lovely flan speckled with coffee, leaning Latin.
And the hot sauce, for anointing everything fried? That’s sriracha. Mr. Gunamuni could have bought Sri Lankan hot sauce from a grocery on Staten Island, but it’s made with ketchup, he explained with some horror. “It’s not good,” he said firmly. “So I didn’t bother.” (Courtesy New York Times)