March 2, 2017
Photo: Courtesy of Banana Leaf
One would think that between its prime location on Connecticut Avenue, its friendly service, and its appealingly exotic cooking, Banana Leaf would be a bit more crowded than it usually is. But usually, patrons are sparse in this spacious and comfortable Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant. Part of the reason may be its lack of an alcohol license, although outside beer and wine are certainly allowed. Things tend to be marginally livelier on nights when popular writers are speaking at Politics and Prose, the bookstore across the street that serves as the block’s main hub. Before a recent reading by a popular fiction author, almost every table was occupied.
Empty or not, Banana Leaf’s interior is comfortable and festive; its jungle green walls are decorated with vivid photographs of tropical flowers and fruits. Service is friendly and attentive and waiters are happy to explain the Sri Lankan portion of the menu, whose many offerings may be unfamiliar to some Washingtonians.
Sri Lankan cuisine has much in common with South Indian, namely its reliance on curry and rice, but it is very much its own animal. The staples are coconut, pickled fruits, vegetables, and naturally, given that Sri Lanka is an island, a generous helping of seafood. The signature dish and best introduction for the uninitiated is probably lampris. It’s a mishmash of rice, cashew, plantains, eggplant, fish and boiled egg, baked and served in a banana leaf – almost like a cross between a Korean bibimbap and a Mexican tamale.
Banana Leaf’s lampris is hearty, generously portioned and at $13.95, a good value – especially given that it can easily work as an entrée for two. Black Pork Curry ($14.50), identified on the menu as a signature dish, is rich in color and complex in flavor. Its simultaneous spiciness and sweetness ensures there is never a dull bite. It owes much of its taste to the goraka, a relative of the tamarind, a fruit indigenous to South India and Sri Lanka. (There’s actually a picture of one of them on the wall.)
Hoppers ($11.95), thin crepe-like pancakes made from rice, flour, and coconut milk, are another Sri Lankan signature dish likely to appeal to western palates. Here the crispy shells serve as the perfect edible vessels for fried egg and chutney. Seafood dishes like the smoky and spicy Ambul Thial ($14.50) are among the menu’s highlights as well.
While these exotic dishes are likely to appeal to adventurous eaters, more familiar South Indian specialties are all on hand too; the kitchen presents solid renditions of such perennial favorites as biryani and curry dishes (ranging from $11.95 to $15.95), as well as a variety of fried rice ($10.95 to $15.95).
A possible benefit of the lack of alcohol is that it may encourage some to check out an interesting roster of soft drinks. Sri Lankan ginger beer ($3) is pleasingly pungent, and fruity cordials (essential “mocktails”) are crisp and refreshing.
The Sri Lankan Embassy is on Massachusetts Avenue, but the office of tourism might as well be right here on Connecticut. A tourism video plays on loop on a television in the corner, and the menu features a small map of Sri Lanka with its major cities marked. These days, it seems like cosmopolitan Washington, D.C. residents have to travel to obscure corners of the earth to seek out foods they’ve never tried. But it turns out that tasty, exotic dishes are right under their nose, on heavily trafficked Connecticut Avenue, just waiting to be discovered.