Would it be more useful to think of Lankan Filling Station less as a Sri Lankan restaurant and more an O Tama Carey restaurant? The food is very much Sri Lankan, tilted towards the Burgher culture of Carey's heritage, yet this is a place where everything bends less to the traditions of a particular nation-state and more to the force of a particular personality.
The look of the room, apart perhaps from the shelves of spice jars facing the kitchen, is more Sydney-now than tropical modernist or Galle Fort-chic, all banquette and bentwood, concrete and careful lighting. Rare is the Sri Lankan restaurant, too, that serves Single O filter coffee, good Martinis, sake and yuzushu, pale, dry Lambrusco di Sorbara, Loire gamay, sangiovese on tap and mead (mead!) alongside its king coconut water, faluda, teas and arrack. These things are united by no other quality that I can see other than the fact that they're all things liked by O Tama Carey. Luckily for us she happens to have impeccable taste.
Southern Asian food is not one of the things at which Sydney restaurants particularly excel. But in Carey it finds a capable and vigorous champion. A reader, a traveller and a person blessed with imagination, but also a hard-working chef who runs her kitchens with rigour, and relishes the feel of a knife in her hand, and the roar of a serious wok-burner. I could tell you about her years at Billy Kwong, or remind you of the deftness and endless invention of her menus at Berta, but the only thing that you really need to know is that O Tama Carey is a hell of a cook.
She fries bouncy little nuggets of cuttlefish in a turmeric batter then tosses them in a pan with a curry-leaf butter, peppers, chilli and red onion. She flavours sighing shreds of fried eggplant with tomato and tamarind, sautés cashew nuts in ghee, mustard seeds and chilli powder, and makes her own crunchy murruku mix. Pineapple goes into her pickles, coconut-milk gravy onto her fried eggs and she scatters curry leaves on anything that stands still long enough.
Though the paper menu comes with instructions (and a pencil), it can be hard to fathom first go. For starters you have to wrap your head around the fact that though there's good organic red rice on offer, the hoppers are king. These bowl-shaped pancakes of rice-flour and coconut arrive crisp, toasty and lacy at the edges, soft, thicker and a little squishy in the centre. They carry the tang of ferment and, like many things at Lankan Filling Station, the perfume of coconut. Tear them up and use them to scoop up some dhal or to mop up some curry.
"It's a good idea to aim for a mix of colours," offers manager Iris Rees by way of direction. The black curries are made by cooking mutton, lamb, goat or pork with a spice mixture rich in clove, cardamom and nigella. The spices are roasted high and hard, and the meat is cooked without the addition of coconut milk or water, further intensifying the flavour. Prawns, by contrast, are poached in an unroasted wet red curry flavoured with fenugreek and cinnamon, given colour and warmth by paprika and chilli, and soured with tamarind. Contrast this again with the white curry, which is not hot and not roasted, foregrounding the sweet, aromatic qualities of its fennel and cumin seed.
Meanwhile, lemongrass, pandan and the likes of a small side-salad of gotul kola (aka pennywort), watercress and onion, bring a green freshness to Filling Station's Sri Lankan food that diagrams its connection to Thai and Burmese traditions as much as the subcontinent.
Prod a member of the service team, and they'll tell you all about it, if they're not too busy delivering more hoppers or another cocktail in a ceramic elephant. They're a well-drilled lot, this. (The staff, not the elephants.) If the room seems familiar, a bit like a long, spooled-out version of Berta, the effect is enhanced by the appearance of alumni like Stuart Blackwell, who, along with Rees, provide service that is informed, unaffected and full of verve.
I imagine they get the occasional comment about the prices. I've heard a few. You can eat a meal of a hopper set at Lankan Filling Station for $16, but I don't ever seem to get out of the place for less than $50 a head – and that's without booze. Some of the questions of value have to do with the fact that Southern Asian food in Australia tends to be sold for very little – too little – money, and some of it also has to do with the fact that some of the servings aren't very big.
But then the production values here – the engagement of the service, the consideration given the drinks, the general comfort levels – all of these things are in line with a $50-a-head meal rather than an eat-and-run hole-in-the-wall. (Spend the $10 more and get the banquet and you will not go hungry.) There's barely a bottle of wine on the list over $70. And I can say, with the confidence that comes of having eaten in the place a dozen times in three weeks, that the food is seldom less than impressive.
Do you happen to be of the vegetarian persuasion? Or does gluten inflame and atrophy your innards? Lankan Filling Station's menu can bring you balm and succour. Almost all of the menu is gluten-free, and the vegetarian offerings are substantial. The cabbage mallung, for one, is buttery and lifted with turmeric and mustard seed. Is there a better dhal served in a restaurant in Sydney than Carey's? Liberal use of coconut milk and coconut oil plus lemongrass and pandan leaf give her red lentils a luxurious quality that is enviable. Then there's the white curry of potato, all confit-garlic sweetness and gentle spice, twanging with Lankan mustard.
You're even better off if you don't mind a little seafood in the mix. "Barely cooked" water spinach, layered with green chilli and dense, flavoursome splinters of the dried bonito called Maldive fish, is a standout. So too is the fish curry – tender folds of snapper, perhaps, lolling in a curry made on a lightly roasted mix of spices which includes coriander, cumin and fennel seed.
Desserts are a must. And even if you don't fall for the silken charms of the baked jaggery custard called watalappam, the gooey delight of buffalo curd with kithul palm treacle and a scattering of buckwheat, or the subtle refreshment of the coconut sorbet, be sure to get some love cake to go. Scented with rose and almond, it's a block of cashew, semolina and spice that will carry the magic of Lankan Filling Station into your next tea break, and have you plotting your return.