Read the fine print beneath the Café Oriental sign to find Priyani.
The menu was a jumble that didn’t provide much direction, but since we were eating at the tail end of a forgotten Northridge strip mall, we didn’t mind. This worked out for the best, since it gave us an opportunity to ask co-owner Nihal Dissanayake for his recommendations…which led to my best Sri Lankan meal in Southern California.
The food was well spiced but not mouth numbing thanks to chef Priyani Dissanayake’s deft touch in the kitchen. The couple opened their humble restaurant in November 2008, and C. Thi Nguyen let the masses know about Priyani in their LA Times review.
We started with a colorful but ultimately extraneous salad that combined sliced tomatoes, fresh chopped peppers, cucumber and pineapple, then transitioned to a surprisingly delicate fried starter.
Priyani formed a well-spiced tuna, potato and onion mix to fill crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside rolls, cutlets (croquettes) and flaky patties (baked Sri Lankan empanadas). The appetizers would have been good on their own, and a peppery tomato-based sauce took every bite was taken to new heights.
Priyani found a creative use for the thin-sliced flatbread called roti, stir-frying strips to a pad see iew-like consistency with gamy mutton, carrots, onions, peppers and egg.
The showstopper was lampreis, a banana leaf-wrapped rice mound topped with distinct heaps of paprika, well-seasoned onion-rich chicken and intensely-flavored caramelized eggplant. Flavors were uniquely delicious, and combined to create culinary fireworks.
Priyani produced deeply-flavored pork infused to its core with caramelized onions and black peppercorns.
The only relatively mild dish was biryani, a spice-soaked fried rice dish studded with cashews and chicken and partnered with more concentrated eggplant.
A plateful of fluffy rice came with dishes of earthy yellow dal, a third eggplant serving and chile-flecked shredded coconut sambal.
The four of us were nearly catatonic after consuming so many rich stews, but couldn’t resist ordering two squares of watalapam, a molasses-like jaggery pudding studded with peanuts and caramelized at the base.
Priyani offered a nearly unrivaled ratio of flavor to value. Our Sri Lankan feast cost $80, including tax, a generous tip and two boxes of leftovers.