What a relief when I stumbled upon 7 Siri Taste of Sri Lanka. It's easy in this job to be constantly lured by the latest opening and to find yourself drifting towards the mid-to-upper end of the restaurant market in the quest to report on Auckland's best eating out options, when in fact those at the other end of the spectrum are just as likely to provide the richest eating experiences.
Jammed into the busy Sandringham strip, the tiny 7 Siri Taste of Sri Lanka is a case in point. This is a place where they're unlikely to have heard of Rene Redzepi of Noma, are even less likely to have heard that "shared plates" are all the rage. And you know what? It didn't matter a dot. No "rocks", gels or clever emulsions. No hyper-fashionable living wall (they do have a replica of a thatched hut over the counter that we found irresistibly cute), no tasting menu or even a liquor license yet. But what they do have, is food that absolutely pops with flavour, and staff who can only be described as warm, unpretentious and genuine.
It's fair to say that 7 Siri has limited space so you need to be prepared to share a table or settle for taking away, as many do.
The owner began by explaining to us that Sri Lankan food is light, spicy and not unlike South Indian in its style with a selection of curries, dhal, flatbreads, rice dishes, and chutneys making up a meal - but he assured us we would find the flavours quite distinct. He was right. We started with a pol roti, a flatbread made from coconut. It was fantastic and served with little bowls of the most lively dhal and vegetable curry. Freshly prepared, the flavours bounced around our mouths, creating a pleasant amount of heat but not so much as to dull the senses. The coconut based roti was denser than the flaky wheat flour based variety and we happily tore pieces off to dip and scoop up the delicious sauces.
The masala dosa was another delightfully satisfying dish. A large spongy lentil and rice flour crepe, cooked to golden and stuffed with a masala potato and pea curry, spiced with curry leaves and mustard seeds, comes served with a gentle lentil dhal and hot coconut chutney. What you'll often hear of Sri Lankan food is that it is the more fiery cousin to South Indian fare but though there is plenty of heat in the food at 7 Siri it's not so cranked up you lose sight of other flavours. The heat is often in the side dishes, so it is possible to self-regulate. This is tasty, healthy, filling food that awakens your senses.
Everyone always raves about the popular Sri Lankan dish, lamprais or "lump rice" - a banana leaf-wrapped package of mixed curries, meat and vegetable, with a boiled egg and rice, but I never enjoy it that much. Despite this, I took the advice of the owner and ordered it but again had slight regret - it's too jumbled for me and the presentation, albeit in a banana leaf, loses some grace by being double wrapped in cling film. I much preferred our other dishes.
Steamed rice flour cakes, idi appa, were soft and delicate and again proved excellent vehicles for the soupy lentil sambar and the minted chutney, as were the vadai, or "savoury doughnuts". A lamb curry was deep and richly spiced.
All over the world chefs are laying claim to wanting to "challenge the diner" and expand our culinary horizons. Well, leaving 7 Siri I felt expanded, and there was no need to overly analyse it; we knew it was great food because it had made us happy and left us feeling nourished. It opened my eyes to a whole part of the world that I have yet to explore so I'm now saving up for a trip to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, I'll be happy to nip into this humble abode in Sandringham. Oh, and the bill was a princely sum of $44, for the two of us.
From the menu: Pol roti $2, masala dosa $7, gothamba roti $1.30, lump rice $14, gadai $0.80, idi appa $10, lamb curry $10