My friends and I wanted to go out for dinner on Friday night, but we wanted it to be an adventure. It couldn’t be another comfort food place in Brooklyn with tin ceilings and a carefully worn vibe. It couldn’t even be a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall. We wanted to go far; we wanted to do something really, really different. So we went to Staten Island.
For those of you who don’t live in New York, Staten Island is actually a part of New York City. It’s one of the five boroughs and it’s accessible by transit so public, it’s free, the wonderful Staten Island Ferry. But it’s another world from Manhattan. Much of it is as suburban as New Jersey or Long Island, and the fact that it’s an island makes it feel even more removed. It’s also connected to the city by bridges, but the only way for carless peons to get there is by the ferry. And whenever you have to get on a boat, it’s an adventure, right? Because there might be pirates!
Our goal on Staten Island wasn’t even that close to their ferry terminal. We took a short cab ride to the two or three-block stretch of Victory Boulevard that’s considered “Little Sri Lanka,” looking for New Asha Restaurant.
It’s not a large restaurant. There’s green and white fluorescent lighting in the window that casts a glow on anyone sitting by the window inside. It has a brisk take-out business, with its display case and steam table full of curries. But there was more than enough seating for the four of us, and best of all, the owner had a big, sure smile. People only smile like that in restaurants when they know they’re serving good food.
She was so sure of her food, she was unfazed by our bewildered, overwhelmed faces. Jeremy had been in Sri Lanka years ago, but none of us understood the menu. Some of the words were familiar or similar to words I’d seen in Indian and Malaysian restaurants. But it seemed easiest and best to trust the woman with the proud smile, and we just asked her to choose enough food to feed four.
While we waited for her to fry up some fresh appetizers, we drank Sri Lankan ginger beer, which has a taste of ginger so strong and real, it makes ginger ale taste like Coca-Cola. And there is an elephant on the can! What more could you ask for in a drink?
The appetizer that looks like rice in the front was actually rice mixed in with bits of dough and egg. Perhaps this was the “egg kottu roti” on the menu? Solomon remarked that it reminded him of matzo brei. It was very tasty, holding its own against its deep-fried appetizer colleagues. I think the fried cylinders were also “roti,” thin crepes that had been rolled around meat and potato in one case, and fish and hard-boiled egg in the other, and then fried. I’ve always known “roti” to refer to the stretchy, chewy flat bread served in Malaysian restaurants with a little dish of super-salty, super-delicious chicken curry. It warmed my heart to think “roti” could take on even more incarnations. (We did ask what we were eating, but I’m still not quite sure what they are actually called, since the owner was more concerned about sharing the ingredients with us. If someone knows for sure, please let me know.)
And then, the rest of our meal. I really don’t know which words on the menu corresponded to what on the tray. I only know that the rice or biryani was fully flavored. The eggplant, the dark purple stuff in the middle, was sweet and chewy almost like raisins, except I liked it so much more than I’ve ever liked raisins. The spinach seemed to have been cooked in coconut. It was one of the few dishes that wasn’t spicy, and was instead almost smooth and sweet. The potatoes were satisfyingly spicy, and the chicken curry had a strong, smoky heat that I loved.
The woman serving us didn’t think there was enough dal, or lentils, left for her to sell it to us, but she said it was so good we had to taste it, and it was. There must have been coconut milk in it–it was the creamiest, richest-tasting dal I’d ever had. I’d be willing to try to make it, but at the least, I’ll have to go back and eat more of it.
We left full and almost deliriously smug at how successful our adventure had been. We’re imagining a summer of Friday nights spent traveling to some far-flung place–you know, like Newark–to eat wondrous new foods. And while we waited for the ferry back, we marveled at the neon fish and coral in the aquariums (aquaria?) in the lobby of the ferry terminal. Staten Island could not have been more surprising.