People say that nice guys finish last. But in the case of nice-guy chef Rishi Naleendra, the reverse, it seems, is true. Barely a year and a half after opening Cloudstreet, the down-to-earth Sri Lankan chef has opened his third eatery, this time at a wood-decked space on the ground floor of the Dickson Road-based Wanderlust Hotel.
Named Kotuwa, for the Sri Lankan capital’s central business district, but also meaning “fort” in Shinhalese (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group native to the island of Sri Lanka and constituting about 75% of the population), the restaurant is, as its name suggests, Naleendra’s ode his roots.
For those who do not already know Naleendra – his claim to fame was the Michelin star he snagged for his first-born, Cheek by Jowl (now renamed Cheek), but lately, also for the strong claim he staked in the fine-dining scene with Cloudstreet.
Just as he is putting his best heritage recipes forward, mostly courtesy of his mother, Naleendra is not leaving the kitchen to chance. For the job, he has put his sous chef at Cheek, Alan Chan, at the helm. Chan was also the one-time former junior sous chef of Burnt Ends.
Originally scheduled to debut in April until the pandemic forced a nation-wide lockdown in Singapore, Kotuwa gave the city a taste of Naleendra’s heritage cuisine by way of a delivery/take-away menu served from the temporarily-closed Cloudstreet during the Circuit Breaker. Now opened in all its brick-and-mortar glory, Kotuwa plugs a gap in the market for a cuisine that is, up until now, not well understood even if it shares many similarities in flavours and ingredients with Indian food and Southeast Asian cuisine.
Sri Lankan cuisine is centred around rice and coconut, with generous use of herbs and spices including cinnamon from the true cinnamon tree – (native to Sri Lanka), black pepper, pandan leaf, lemongrass as well as Maldive fish (cured tuna traditionally made in Maldives), garaka (Malabar tamarind) and jaggery (cane sugar) from kithul palm syrup. You will find some of these ingredients in Kotuwa although, at the moment, they have stocked out on Maldive fish and garaka due to the pandemic. But importantly, pickles and condiments are also central to the way the Sri Lankans eat and there is no lack of these sweet, salty or spicy appetite-openers to get your started.
If Naleendra has his way, he would have you order one item each from the menu of Sambols, Achcharu (or Malay pickles) and Preserves for an induction into the world of Sri Lankan condiments. While they are all delicious in different ways, three stand out for me. The Lychee Achcharu ($8), lychee pickled in mustard, apple cider and chillies, is sweet, refreshing and spicy, perfect to open your meal with or as a palate cleanser in between dishes. The Pol Sambol ($8), grated coconut with shallots dried chillies and lime juice, tastes fresh and spicy and is good to top over rice ($6) or hoppers (rice or coconut crepe), as is the Seeni Sambol ($8), an intensely sweet onion chutney of spiced caramelised onions flavoured with true cinnamon, sugar and tamarind.
Sri Lanka is known for its fish croquette but Naleendra chooses to serve Crab Cutlet ($16) instead with a creamy spiced crab brandade ensconced. If you prefer meat, he suggests the panko-crumbed Mutton Rolls ($14) instead.
Vegetarians have no lack of options at Kotuwa. In fact, apart from the sambol, achcharu and preserves, two of our top three-rated dishes are vegetarian. Kaju curry ($16) is a traditional Sri Lankan cashew nut curry with green peas featuring plump water-soaked cashew nuts cooked in coconut milk with spices of lemongrass and pandan. Mild, creamy and delicately flavoured, the dish can be eaten on its own or with rice and the cashew nuts are cooked until tender, requiring minimum chewing. Made with a recipe handed down from Naleendra’s mother, the Dahl ($8) here is quite unlike what you’ll get outside – thick and intense with a whiff of turmeric, pandan, chilli and curry leaves, this hearty recipe gives diners a taste of home, Naleendra’s home to be sure.
For mains, you can’t go wrong with any of the meats or seafood. The Black Pepper Kithul Pork ($24), a Naleendra creation, arrives with crisp cubes of pork belly lacquered with black pepper-flavoured Sri Lankan “Kithul” palm syrup – it’s not a bad choice if you prefer a non-curried dish. But if you’re a crab lover, I reckon it’s a no-brainer – the Crab Curry (market price) is a must. The Sri Lankan mud crab, which arrives alive to be stored in tanks in the kitchen weighing about 500 to 600 grams each, are served in a thick coconut milk-enriched curry teeming with the intense flavours of true cinnamon bark, curry leaves, lemongrass, chilli powder and green chillies. When shelled, the crab meat is firm and plump, and nicely slicked with the spices that the crustacean has been cooked with. Order it.
For dessert, Naleendra goes contemporary with the traditional Sri Lankan dessert of Watalappan, a coconut custard pudding. Presented as Watalappan Tart ($16), the jaggery-sweetened, cloves and cardamom-perfumed coconut custard arrives topped with crushed pistachio nuts, candied orange and a smidgen of white chocolate and cardamom cream. Undoubtedly sweet as it should be, it’s also incredibly tasty, much like a kueh served on a tart base, best washed down with a cup of Sri Lankan black tea.
Singapore is known for its diverse dining scene – the diversity is now complete with this compelling new addition. Kudos to Naleendra and Chan!
2 Dickson Road, 1F Wanderlust Hotel, Singapore 209494; +65-9707838; kotuwa.com.sg
© Evelyn Chen 2020
Please note that the reviews published on this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.