Elevated Sri Lankan Cuisine at 1601 Bar & Kitchen

1601 Bar & Kitchen opened late March this year in a less-traveled area of the SOMA (South of Market) district, but within walking distance of the Mission. Owner-Chef Brian Fernando was born and raised in Sri Lanka, but has spent several years cooking originally in Spain, with a stint at Chez Panisse and the last 10 years at Le Papillon, a fine dining restaurant located in San Jose, where he honed his French cooking skills. Fernando takes classical French techniques and applies a Sri Lankan flavor profile to the food at his latest venture, resulting in an elevated take on the food of the South Asian island located off the coast of India. Often mistaken for Southern Indian food, Sri Lankan fare is distinct, as it is more of a blend of its multi-cultural heritage. Yes, curries and rice are typical dishes that can be found in Sri Lanka, but influences from the Moors and Malays that make up the ethnic cultural diversity can be found in the food. It is with that in mind that Fernando decided to open San Francisco’s first Sri Lankan inspired restaurant, featuring spice and certain dishes from his home country.

Similar to many other restaurants in the City, their focus is on small plates meant to be shared, with a recommended guideline of ordering two to three dishes per person. Whether small plate offerings are ubiquitous can be debated, but with about 15 items on their menu, small plates do provide an opportunity to try out more dishes.

As an amuse bouche, the kitchen sent out little cups of spring garlic soup with spiced bread and mallum (a mash of watercress, coconut and chile spices). Offered on their menu, this espresso cup sized version not only provided us an extra taste, but the rich and spicy soup gave us a good preview of what to expect for the rest of the meal:

Their goal is to eventually get a full liquor license, but for now it is limited to a beer and wine selection. Since we expected to eat some spicy food, we ordered this food-friendly Resiling Kabinett to pair with our meal:

The raw kale salad served with coconut meat, shards of Parmesan cheese, a Spanish black radish slice and dressed with a black garlic vinaigrette was very good. Our only complaint about this dish was that the portion was rather small for a salad:

The local halibut “ceviche” was dressed with coconut milk, micro cilantro, chili flakes and thin serrano chili slices. The coconut milk and chilies added just the right amount of sauce and spiciness to the fresh fish slices:

We had to order the traditional hopper, a Tamil dish available in parts of Sri Lankan and Southern India. The bowl-shaped thin pancake is made with coconut milk and fermented rice flour which adds just a hint of sour. It was served with two different sambals to use as condiments and add spice: one made with stewed onion “jam” and the other made with dried coconut flakes, chilies and Maldive fish (cured tuna). We were told that there was no right way to eat the hopper so we hand tore panacake pieces, dipped it in the egg, then added some sambal to each bite. This dish was excellent and will keep us coming back for more:

We must have been thirsty and polished off the Riesling, so we decided to order the Lion’s Whisker, a Southern Rhône blend of Syrah and Mourvedre made by South African Fable Wine. The lovely Yuliya (co-owner/manager) told us the story that this wine’s fable was about two sisters that were about to be married and separated, and were worried that they would no longer be close. The village healer told them a lion’s whisker could be used to make a potion to help them out. After many week of watching a lion drink at the lake, they were finally able to come close enough to get a whisker and brought it back to the shaman. Of course, the moral of the story was that no potion was really needed as their perseverance in getting the lion to trust them and get a whisker was enough to show that they would have a strong bond forever. Not sure if the story or the wine itself was more interesting, but the wine was very good:

We didn’t order it, but the kitchen kindly sent out two pre-split bowls of the Mulligatawny soup, another typical Tamil dish. With splashes of crème fraîche for added richness, the soup contained a very flavorful and tender chicken confit topped with a pickled black mustard seed “caviar.” The lightly curried soup, typically thickened with rice, was an excellent upscale version of this dish:

We debated on either getting the roasted quail, crispy skin pork belly or the lamb and pork meatballs and asked our server what she recommended. She said to try the meatballs since the green chickpea “relish” was a unique item that she thought was great. The relish topped-meatballs were served in a thick sauce lightly flavored with cinnamon on a bed of Strauss yogurt. We had remarked to Chef Fernando (when he briefly popped out of the kitchen) that we thought the meatballs with yogurt reminded us of Turkish Beyti Kabobs, and he told us that the dairy addition is not typically Sri Lankan. In either case, the yogurt and chickpeas were great additions to the hearty meatballs:

One of the BarFlys loves fried bananas and one of the three desserts offered were Banana Fritters served with thick Greek yogurt, jaggery (Asian sugar), treacle (un-crystallized sugar molasses) and brûléed banana slices. This was an excellent way to end a very satisfying meal:

1601 Bar & Kitchen may be casual, but the meal ends as if we ate at a fine dining restaurant, where the check is served with a couple of gelée bites, topped with micro mint leaves:

Chef Fernando popped out of the kitchen to make the rounds to greet diners:

1601 Bar & Kitchen seats about 30 diners. All of the dishes feature inventive but muted use of various spices, where none of the dishes could be considered hot in terms of flavor. We will definitely return for the unique hopper and look forward to working our way through the rest of the menu.


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