I like looking at the people of Staten Island. I especially like looking at people who are waiting with me to board the ferry, not chic — never chic — but beautiful. This man or woman with shaved sides of the head but long hair down their back, this woman fat with big breasts overflowing eating an ice cream cone and laughing with her friends, this guy with a large dagger tattoo holding his five-year-old’s hands, Puerto Rican, Italian, Liberian, African-American, Irish-Mayan.
Staten Island resists the homogenization that has been happening all over New York, and for this I celebrate it. The island is one of the last holdouts against gentrification, and one of the main ways it has accomplished this is by being poor. The other way is by being independent and refusing to link to the rest of the city’s subway system. Staten Island is not the queer-friendliest place in the city, but Sarah Schulman teaches in its local CUNY college, the late, great Harry Wieder was an activist here, and queer folk live throughout the borough, some of them quite openly.
There’s also food you won’t find anywhere else. The island is home to the country’s largest population of Sri Lankans, and if you live off-island one of the best weekend daytrips you can take is a lunchtime outing to one of several extraordinary Sri Lankan restaurants. Unless you’re driving, take the ferry; it’s gorgeous and it’s free. One of the food stalls at the Manhattan terminal sells excellent half bottles of wine, which you can drink on the ferry with one of its freshly-baked brownies or carry to the BYO restaurants.
For today, let’s consider Lakruwana, whose weekend buffet is one of the few lunch buffets in Gotham I would recommend. A short bus ride from the ferry terminal (or a nice walk down sunny Bay Street, which runs parallel to the eastern shore), Lakruwana is surrounded on nearby streets by beautiful and unsettling graffiti murals (one shows a menacing hydra-headed figure, drawn in a Mexican idiom).
Because the restaurant is popular on weekends, service can be a bit disorganized. No matter. If you’re getting the buffet, as soon as you’re seated you can just grab a plate and start serving yourself. A member of the waitstaff will appear shortly with water and to see if you need anything else. Do take a moment to look around the room and notice the delirious assemblage of artwork and statuary hanging from the rafters and climbing up the walls. As you come in, there are three august and enormous stone Buddhas standing next to the bar, dozens of masks by ingenious Sri Lankan sculptors, some of them brilliantly colored demons and others beige but intensely expressive emotionally, and metalwork depicting (among other things) women with unusually vibrant breasts and prominent nipples.
There’s much more, but you’re hungry. The buffet looks much smaller than it is because instead of being laid out on an unappealing steam table, it curves around a wall in a procession of clay pots mounted over tiny flames. There are two kinds of tasty, fluffy white rice. Use either as your base. The first thing you might want to put on top of one of them is a mild but appealing dish of hard-boiled eggs floating in psychedelic-purple curry (asked what had made it purple, one of the owners, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, would only say, “the coconut”).
For the rest, I have to come right out and tell you that the vegetarian dishes are far better than the meat ones. After the eggs, ignore the containers of pork and chicken next in line. Proceed immediately to the far left side of the group of pots and get yourself some of a strange-looking dense, black item labeled “eggplant curry.” (In a lovely innovation, Lakruwana posts little handscripted labels identifying every dish, avoiding a common buffet pitfall.) Unless you’re accustomed to the food of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka (the majority ethnic group), it’s unlike anything you’ve ever eaten anywhere. Very thin, long strips of eggplant are fried seemingly forever and caramelized, and come out sweet, tangy, and smoked, with a consistency somewhere between chunky jam and the Jewish Sabbath dish chulent (beans simmered for many hours with brisket and other items). I kept going back for more, dishing it over the rice.
Nearby was pineapple curry, a dish Sri Lankans often eat for lunch. Note that it was not chicken or tofu or vegetables, say, in a pineapple curry. Pineapple was no mere condiment here, but the star. Coconut and a little curry leaf and cinnamon were the base for ample, juicy chunks of the fruit. To me, the dish felt like a fantasy fulfillment — I get to eat pineapple as a regular entrée? I’m not a stoner, but it did seem like ideal stoner food. Even absolutely sober, I found the pineapple curry and that eggplant the best things I’d eaten in months.
There was a yellow dish that looked like creamed corn, which turned out to be an unusually creamy and delicious dal. Alongside was a bowl of tasty papadums, more unctuous than the ones I’ve had in Indian restaurants, and an assortment of hot peppers so diners could ramp up the spice level of any dish at will: fried cayenne peppers, raw Thai bird chilies, and what looked like green habaneros and Scotch bonnets.
About those meat dishes: they weren’t terrible, but they weren’t anything I would want to eat unless I was very hungry. Chunks of pork, though an appealing black color, were not particularly tasty or juicy. Though a sign warned of the presence of bones in the chicken curry, that didn’t make the tiny bites of too-tamely sauced flesh clinging to annoying pointy bone fragments worth it.
A large pot of Ceylon tea went well with the food, but was bizarrely overpriced at $9. (The buffet, which is also available for Saturday and Sunday dinner, is a pleasing $12.95.)
À la carte dishes are also always offered, including hoppers (also $12.95), the small, bowl-like rice crepes that serve as a container for a choice of curries, and many lamb, goat, beef, and chicken dishes, which I suspect may be better than their meat proxies in the buffet. I really wanted to try the house specialty of lamprais, a holdover from the Dutch occupation, which is made by steaming meat or fish curry with rice, vegetables, and various pungent condiments in a banana leaf (yup, also $12.95).
But I was nearly full, and it was time to hit the dessert buffet, included with the purchase of the savory one. The day we went, there was “caramel pudding” (which turned out to be a frankly terrible-tasting flan), soothing tapioca, and fabulous, creamy mousses made from mango and what was identified as “gooseberry” (actually an unrelated but similar-tasting fruit called the “Ceylon gooseberry,” which is native to Sri Lanka). The dulcet mango is most people’s fave, but the faux-gooseberry was mine. It was bright neon green and quivering, looking like some extraterrestrial delicacy, and it tasted voluptuous and bright at once.
With that gooseberry cream rolling in your mouth, cast your eye over some of the other decorative items here: straw puppets of monkeys, wicker owls and peacocks hovering over the dessert bar and the (nonalcoholic) beverage bar, beautiful though not excessively comfortable chairs made of rope strung in long triangles over metal rods. But some of the best art is in the bathroom: as you’re doing your business, stare at a row of extraordinarily expressive sculptures of faces. A large wooden sign over the nearby kitchen spells out, “Relax.”
Lakruwana is at 668 Bay Street at Broad Street in Staten Island (lakruwana.com or 347-857-6619). Not wheelchair accessible (the restaurant and its narrow restroom both require one step up).
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