When Araliya announced they were opening a sister venue in St Kilda, it was a little surprising. Sri Lankan doesn't scream Fitzroy Street. Actually, it's not clear what Sri Lankan screams at all, but now southside has it's very own restaurant dedicated to the cuisine. It's Araliya number two, the second venue from Sam and Dee Wedande who, after a massive 30 years in Hawthorn, have taken this institution into new, unchartered territory.
But this isn't just a clone of the Hawthorn outpost. And rightly so; that never would have worked. Araliya St Kilda, complete with new branding and steeze, now has a focus on small sharing plates, the bar and booze. Bartender Anton Turco Bertolotti has come on board to add cocktails into the mix — basil martini, anyone? — and to orchestrate more of a casual bar feel. Likewise, the fit out is sleek, modern and a world away from what you would have seen in Hawthorn. Aesthetically, it's somewhat reminiscent of Golden Fields (before it became Luxembourg) a few doors down.
Sri Lankan food can be a bit of a mystery, so in order to demystify the process, here's the jist: sort of like a lovechild of Indian and African cuisine, the spices are heavy, thick and cockle-warming. In a way that's similar to African, the dishes are designed to be eaten with vegetables (ordered as sides) and lots of roti. Naturally, it's all made for sharing. If you're not sure how to go about ordering though, just ask the waitstaff.
The highlight of our meal was, undoubtedly, the fennel curried duck leg ($18.50/$32). This is where Sam's lifetime of experience in the kitchen shines. If you order it — and the only reason you shouldn't is if you're morally disinclined to eat duck — expect the meat to fall right off the bone and, subsequently, melt in your mouth. It's best mopped up with roti (crisp, but still chewy — the best kind) or some thosai: pretty similar to dosa, they are Sri Lanka's own lentil (gluten free!) pancakes, served with green coconut chutney and herb salad ($8.50).
While we found these dishes well priced, the same can't be said across the board. The Godhamba roti roll omelette with crab, goat's cheese, tomato and green chilli was holy by roti roll standards, but a bit too steep at $27 a pop. Particularly as you'll want another one. Similarly, the sides of veggies — shredded Brussels sprouts and coconut, lentils, pickled beetroot — were a necessary addition to the table, but an expensive one at $14 each.
We'd suggest sacrificing your waistline for your wallet, though, and spending that dough on dessert. The roti cigars filled with fresh coconut, spiced, topped with treacle and served with an incredible cinnamon ice-cream ($15) are perfect, and manage to stay fresh without being too sweet.
But that's what this place is: sweet. It's certainly St Kilda's sweetest Sri Lankan restaurant. In this weird place where your neighbours are both rowdy English backpackers and Andrew McConnell, the new and improved Araliya seems to have found a space to slot in.