91 First Avenue
New York, NY
After missing our last two meetings, Rick was called upon to locate our next destination and after much deliberation, steered us to the gentrified East Village for a cuisine we had yet to experience: Sri Lankan.
Sigiri was around the corner from the stretch of Indian restaurants on East 6th Street between First and Second Avenues known as “Little India” where I often brought dates because the prices were the best in the city—even cheaper than Chinatown and always byob. I got a little nostalgic walking past the few remaining dingy dives on the block. My longings for the past, however, quickly dissipated after I was accosted by a row of servers standing outside the restaurants pathetically imploring passersby to sample what I now know is substandard Indian fare.
The narrow restaurant would be a challenge for our party of six, but accommodations were made and tables were joined and we were able to sit together. From my pre-dinner, online research, Sigiri, I believed was the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Manhattan and this was quickly confirmed by our hostess/server who spoke not with an Indian accent, but with a melodious British one.
And it was in that accent where she quickly charmed Mike from Yonkers by inquiring if he was Sri Lankan. I’m sure Mike from Yonkers has been called many things, but I doubt being a Sri Lankan has been one of them. For some reason it took him longer than it should have to respond in the negative and when she returned, she flattered him further by saying, “You know, you look a little like Denzel when you smile.” The Denzel in question being Washington and any similarity between Mike from Yonkers and Denzel from nearby Mount Vernon was lost on me. And with Mike from Yonkers’ ego now meteorically boosted, he, of course, did nothing to discourage her continuous compliments.
The somewhat strained flirt fest between the two was beginning to dull my appetite, but when our hostess warned us that serving Sri Lankan without any spice modification was extreme even for her, I perked up. We emphatically told her to prepare our dinner as it would be prepared in Sri Lanka as opposed to what might satisfy the gentrified East Village of New York. We didn’t need to be pampered with cloth napkins or with flickering table candles, both of which Sigiri provided much to Gerry’s disdain. We didn’t want dulled down food even at the expense of our intestinal tracks, both upper and lower. And since we were Sri Lankan food novices, we also had her prepare what might be a good representative of that country’s cuisine with a request by Zio for a dish he insisted, for some inexplicable reason to be included, called “string hopper kotthu.”
While we were waiting for our food, Eugene, conversationalist that he is, filled us in on a doo wop show at White Plains High School he attended recently where the Harptones were the lead attraction.
“Do you know Willie Winfield is 79,” Eugene informed us, referring to the great lead singer of that magnificent group.
I appreciated the update, but Rick and Mike from Yonkers, clueless to what Eugene was talking about could only stare dully at their beers while Zio believed that Eugene’s news was an opportunity to mention something about an obscure doo wop tune called “Knee Socks” which both Eugene and I had never heard of. Zio remained insistent of the song’s authenticity and even went so far as to send me a You Tube link a few days later of a video of assorted female “knee socks” flashing along with the very brief song of the same name by a group called the Ideals who were known probably only to only Zio and a few other lunatics.
The arrival of an assorted appetizer platter that included a selection of breaded and fried “nibblers;” fish spring roll, fish cutlet, lentil patty, and a vegetable spring roll, stifled the doo wop chatter. Anticipating heat, we were disappointed that what was on the platter was not only mildly spicy, but dry as well. Things quickly changed when the “devilled grill” arrived on our table; grilled chicken that was the Sri Lankan equivalent to genuine Jamaican jerk chicken—only hotter. After a few bites, Zio’s world weary eyes were beginning to tear up and his nose was running as was everyone else’s.
The heat onslaught continued unabated with a pork “black” curry, a fish curry in coconut milk sauce, and kotthu roti, a pancake chopped into shreds and fried with assorted vegetables. The only respite from the intense spice was Zio’s choice of string hopper kotthu, a version of Sri Lankan spaghetti accompanied with a chicken curry.
A platter of white rice and coconut roti (an Indian-style flat bread) also helped ease the pain and when Eugene was able to speak again, he proclaimed Sigiri as serving the hottest food we had yet to encounter, even spicier than the Sichuan Little Pepper of Flushing.
And if Eugene proclaims it, then it must be true.