MELBOURNE | In St Kilda’s revitalised Fitzroy Street is Araliya, a restaurant specialising in cuisine maybe best described as Sri Lankan fusion, and The City Lane was invited to try it. If the name sounds familiar, perhaps you might have known its previous incarnation in Hawthorn, a 30-year staple for the area.
I’ll admit that I didn’t visit their previous Hawthorn restaurant, and that I really don’t have a thorough understanding of what defines Sri Lankan food, but thankfully, neither of those things are actually a problem. Coming from award-winning Chef Sam Wedande, Araliya aims to bring together the pieces of what makes Sri Lankan cuisine, while at the same time bringing something modern and new and to the table.
But while tradition is at times only given a hat tip here, one thing that has lingered is the idea of sharing, and as I found out, it is through combinations that you’ll find the biggest rewards here.
We started out with this sweet, vodka, lemon, and basil martini. It’s refreshing, strong, and quite fruity, and completely and utterly satisfying if you’re in need of a little revitalising. We had this in winter, but if it was summer, I suspect these would be walking out the door, even if you had trouble doing so.
Chilli Chocolate Cocktail
Others at our table described this as a little like a cherry ripe, and it would be a very apt description were it not for the heavy hit of chilli throughout. If you take a sip of this as is, it will likely cause you to run away screaming when the chilli kicks in. This is a drink that favours the patient so instead, pick up a stirring stick, move the chocolate around at the bottom, and then take a long deep sip. The chilli will still be there of course, but it will be joined by everything else. We think you’ll enjoy this one.
Beetroot-cured Salmon, Sichuan pickled cucumber, capers
This is a mild starter combining salmon and for a little extra kick, capers. It’s simple and I suspect probably not traditional Sri Lankan fare, but it works. And if you’re not a lover of beetroot, don’t worry, it’s more of a hint than anything.
Steamed Cabbage Rolls
Continuing the theme of combinations are the cabbage rolls. They hit all the right buttons on their own, but make sure you pick up some chilli butter before you take a bite. Go without it and you’re really only getting half the taste.
Scallops in a hopper
When these appeared on the table we were joined by Chef Wedande who explained that the shell-like containers were hoppers, rice flour pancakes commonly used with, and I’m going to heavily paraphrase here, drunk or nightclub food in Sri Lanka. But in the same way as a drunk food ingredient like pita bread can be used greatly for other things, Wedande has used these with scallops to make something a little different.
During the gap between the the starters and the mains we had a chat with Wedande. ‘Food is evolving’, he tells us when we ask him about his recipes, and there’s a real belief in this statement. After 30 years as a chef, Wedande is still curious about what he can come up with next. For example, on one particular salad a fellow guest asked him what a peculiar ingredient was. The answer? A coastal plant called saltbush. He also frequents the markets around Melbourne but he admits that a lot of what he finds he doubts he will find again. Although for Wedande, this instead becomes a chance to make something new for the week. It’s this kind of thrill that seems to drive the chef, and in our opinion, is also what makes this place a little exciting.
But moving on to the mains. For this part of the course, a large selection of sides such as Asian greens, beetroot and turnip with curry leaves, and green beans with cashew nuts were offered, along with the meat dishes, but as everything is combined, I’m going to look at it all through the lens of the meat dishes.
As you would expect, this was something quite spicy, but quite unique all the same. On speaking with the chef about this, he informed me that the restaurant’s approach is that they would prefer to run out of fish than for it not to be fresh. So, if you arrive looking for fish, make sure you get in early.
This came highly recommended, and given the almost-insane popularity of pork belly these days, it’s not surprising. In this dish, combining peanuts, rockmelon, and pickled papaya, the pork belly was tender in the middle, but with thick and at-times tough edges, which I’ll admit, sounds like a negative, but actually made it more akin to a roast.
Despite it’s simplicity, it was the chicken I kept returning to throughout the main course. It was cooked well, and while it wasn’t the flashiest of the courses, with the addition of the chilli, because everything is about combinations, it was for me the most balanced.
When the squabbles were over and the last of the mains were done, dessert was served. Our host for the evening had spoke highly of this, but based on the ingredients she had described, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Steamed Coconut Custard and Banana Sorbet
Elegantly displayed, when this first appeared, we a little apprehensive to take it apart. However, what we found was that when you finally bite the bullet and do it, it pays to take a little of all the pieces. It wasn’t my favourite desert (see below for that), but it certainly set a pretty high standard.
Chilli and ginger, roasted pineapple, basil sorbet
When I was a kid, the idea of pineapple with anything was enough to make me run for the hills. It always seemed like the least interesting part of the fruit salad. Thankfully, this has an interesting twist, offering a sizeable infused hit of chilli and ginger. It’s pretty intense so I wouldn’t recommend going solo on this one, but if you’ve got a group, this might be a nice addition.
Chocolate Mousse and Sweet Potato Custard
Our night finished with this. It had been mooted from the beginning of the meal, and it didn’t disappoint. But like many of the meals at Araliya, this finds its strength when in combination. The mousse on its own is great, as is the unexpected sweet potato custard, but when combined in a single bite it brings something genuinely interesting. The flower is a nice touch too, but perhaps avoid eating that.
It’s been a long road for Araliya, and based on our conversations with the chef, it has been a road paved with experimentation. But that is kind of the charm here. They’re planning for a brunch menu soon, which could be a first for a Melbourne Sri Lankan restaurant, and Chef Wedande seems keen on keeping the rules suitably bent.
We like it here. It is a restaurant that clearly doesn’t follow the crowd, and has no interest in doing so. If you’re in St Kilda, this is an opportunity on your doorstep; if you’re anywhere else, there’s a tram stop just down the road.
157 Fitzroy Street
Telephone: (03) 9078 6757
Lunch, Thu – Sun: 12:00pm onwards
Dinner, Tue – Sun: 5:00pm to 10:30pm