A Sri Lankan Tasting Menu to Savor at 1601 Bar & Kitchen
One of the few Sri Lankan fine-dining restaurants around, 1601 Bar & Kitchen celebrated a decade in San Francisco this year.
As with many establishments, the last few have certainly been challenging for it, what with the pandemic and increasing grittiness of the city.
But owners, Chef Brian Fernando and his wife, Yuliya Pavlova, who runs front of house, persevered mightily. And in February, they reopened their doors fully to the public, offering a $150 per person tasting menu Thursday through Saturday now.
They have a loyal clientele, many of whom have supported the restaurant by booking group events regularly.
A couple weeks ago, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant to enjoy the current tasting menu.
If you don’t know Sri Lankan food, this is a perfect place to experience it, as you will feel warmly cared for by the couple from the moment you step through the doors. A little reminiscent of Indian food, the food of this Indian Ocean island is centered on rice, curries, chilies, and spices. Coconut is used copiously.
Dinner begins with an amuse of a bracing oyster on the half shell with coconut milk mignette afloat with pearls of finger lime and a sliver of Serrano chili that provides a quick hit of grassy heat.
Next, an elegant wedge of avocado whose hollow is filled with Tsar Nicoulai “Estate” caviar, and garnished with crunchy, quenching sea beans. The avocado sits atop what looks like a cloud, but is really rice blended with coconut milk, then aerated. It all provides a buttery and milky sweet foil for the briny caviar.
That’s followed by a vibrant bisque made from dry-farmed tomatoes and dolloped with almond and cilantro relish. Smooth and creamy, it’s a soup that will wake up the palate with its bright tanginess and lash of heat.
It was accompanied by house-made roti that was as crisp and layered as fine pastry, though a tad oily.
Monterey Bay abalone was cooked sous vide, chopped, then spooned back into its iridescent shell with diced Yukon Gold potatoes. The chewy, voluptuous abalone got a hint of sweetness from treacle butter made with the sap from a Sri Lankan palm tree, an earthy note from shaved Burgundy truffles, and a subtle fruity sourness from goraka, also known as Malabar tamarind.
Perhaps the best known Sri Lankan food is the egg hopper. Distinctively bowl-shaped, this street food is a lacy, delicate crepe made from rice and rice flour that has an egg nested in its center, along with two relishes, a grated coconut one and another of caramelized onion seasoned with paprika. Tear off a piece of the side and use it to dip into the oozy yolk and relishes for a delightfully comforting taste that’s both sweet and savory.
A seafood curry arrived next, brimming with local black cod, morsels of Dungeness crab from Washington state, Brussels sprouts leaves, butter beans, and shiitake and shimeji mushrooms. The cod bones had been roasted to add another layer of flavor to the coconut milk broth that tasted of tangy tamarind and earthy Sri Lankan spices.
Comforting and filling, it was also quite rich, so alongside came carrots lightly pickled with piquant mustard seeds and dates that gave them a winey sweetness.
The last savory course was duck two ways. First, Fernando’s Sri Lankan version of duck leg confit, cured with kithul jaggery, the natural Sri Lankan palm sweetener with notes of earth and smoke. It was served atop masoor dhal, split lentils cooked down to a porridge-like consistency. The duck, tender with a soft braised texture, was finished with a black curry made with figs, that emphasized just what a natural partner fruit is with the dark poultry.
But there was still more — the breast, sliced and served separately that was so rosy and juicy. Basmati rice was served alongside, which went especially well with the creamy dhal.
Dessert was a sizeable dome of Valrhona white chocolate sprinkled with a touch of chili salt. Inside was a creamy and airy passion fruit mousse, with more passion fruit pulp drizzled on the plate. It was a sweet and heavy dessert, but the tartness of the passion fruit helped balance it out somewhat. A cookie platform or cookie crumbles might have been nice to add more crunch to all that creaminess.
Never experienced Sri Lankan food? What are you waiting for? Take you taste buds on an exciting new flavor adventure at 1601 Bar & Kitchen.