Flatiron Lunch: Banana Leaf’s Sri Lankan Buffet is a Great Find
Every Friday we go south of the ML boundaries in search of a delicious lunch. Sometimes it’s Murray Hill south or the Flatiron District, sometimes Gramercy and everything in between- but we just like to call it Flatiron Lunch.
MidtownLunch has a long and amorous history with buffets (thank you, Zach Brooks!) When I walked by the above sign, I knew it was my Contributor duty to check it out. Additionally, I was excited that I would get to try Sri Lankan food. Given the proximity to India (and after reading a little online, I learned about Sri Lanka’s role as a major trading hub leading to additional influences), Banana Leaf was a good bet.
The banana leaves hanging from the top of the front window are a hint at the decoration inside. On my first visit, I was immediately struck by the leaf thatched roof in the back of the restaurant adding a layer of atmosphere to the high pressed tin ceilings.
It wasn’t until my second visit that I noticed the tables covered with blown up photos of leaves (must be banana, right?), plastic place-mats featuring a painting of a tradition festival or parade, and tourist posters of Sri Lankan sites hanging on the wall. All I will say is, don’t go to Banana Leaf for the decor, go for the food.
The buffet offered two types of rice, a white rice and a red rice, which was unlike any I had previously seen, had only a slight tint of red mixed in. I loaded up the bottom of my to-go container with a couple scoops of each, but in the end, it is not surprising that I couldn’t fully taste the differences between the rices considering the flavors I piled on.
The black pork curry was tender with a substantial seasoning of black pepper. With the chicken curry, don’t expect to find all white meat chicken here. Instead, look forward to chicken on the bone chopped into 2 inch segments cooked until tender. While it may be more work to eat, you know cooking it on the bone enhances the flavors. Cabbage curry was fairly standard with onions. The very thick lentils were not soupy at all and kind of on the bland side, despite the appearance of whole dried chilies. The cucumber salad came with chopped red onion and tomatoes covered with a thin layer of yogurt. It was a nice palate cleanser and spice minimizer. On a side table from the main buffet, they also had a container of spicy mango chutney. Um, yes please!
The one item on the buffet (other than the red rice) that was totally new to me was the chopped raw collard greens with red onions and shredded coconut. Immediately, it struck me as an amazing combo. I wish I had known about it when I had a CSA and would get insane piles of greens that I couldn’t get through. Anyone with me on this?
I felt a little guilty when the guy under the thatched roof hut packed my to-go container in the bag (it weighed so much), but all’s fair when it comes to buffets, right? Even though I had to carry my container back with both hands, I wish I had scooped a little more of both the meat curry sauces to infuse the rice.
While I am not sure why anyone would NOT get the buffet, I figured it was only fair to try at least one dish from the regular menu. Wanting to stay in the ML budget, I went with the string hoppers with fish curry. The menu described the string hoppers as “spaghetti like strings steamed on small cane trays”. The menu also said that each $10 order was accompanied by 15 string hoppers, so that seemed like a great deal.
I didn’t really know how to eat this, especially with the fish sitting in the curry sauce in steak form. So I shredded the fish (good thing I did since there were bones), then piled the fish on top of two string hoppers, covered the whole dish with curry sauce, and the two sides that came with my meal, kiri hodi (coconut and onion gravy) and coconut sambol (shaved coconut, fried onions/shallots and spices). I repeated this several times.
When the heat of the curry really started to burn, I dipped a string hopper directly into the coconut gravy which helped bring me back from the spicy brink.
I was sure to check the buffet when I picked up my string hoppers and saw that they repeated a few dishes, but switched out a few. I was disappointed to see that between my first and second visit, Banana Leaf raised the buffet take out price from $6.99 to $7.99. The only logical explanation can be that they saw how much food I took the first time and had to raise the prices to compensate for people like me. My apologies to everyone.
The + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- I am always happy to try a new buffet.
- I love exploring new cuisines, and Sri Lankan is up next!
- Sri Lankans figured out the most delicious uses for coconut.
The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- I refuse to devote the time to try different buffet items to figure out what is best.
- I wish the lentils had the same depth of flavor of other dishes.
- Banana Leaf’s dishes are too much work to eat with bones in everything
Banana Leaf, 227A West 28th Street btwn 7th and 8th Avenues, (212) 494-0000