Eat and Be Merry management has issued Bilby and me our P-plates – entrusted to our first invitation event at Pavlov's Duck. Armed with detailed instructions we arrive just a bit early at the decidedly less fashionable end of Smith Street, Fitzroy – amidst all the sportswear outlet stores. No evening parking problems here.
Pavlov’s Duck is currently a breakfast to afternoon coffee café with an innovative Sri Lankan twist: ranging from Bircher Muesli for the traditionalists, to Pol Roti – son-in-law eggs on Sri Lankan coconut roti with sweet onion relish and spiced red lentil – for the more adventurous. It is extending its hours to include evenings of Sri-Lankan hawker-style dining and tonight is a pre-opening event to introduce and test out the new format. The owners Noah and his partner Alanna give a friendly greeting to all of the guests while making sure everything is ‘just right’. Like ducks, they are calm on the surface but paddling frantically below the waterline. The staff are on their toes and the atmosphere is buzzing.
Godhamba roti with dhal
To enter Pavlov’s Duck is to experience industrial meets rustic, with a good splash of eccentric. Exposed beams and pipework hover over a selection of almost-not-matching distressed timber counters, shelves, tables, benches and chairs. Decorative items evoke the junk shop – old bikes, suitcases, mismatched vases and the like. As you might expect, ducks feature prominently. It might sound like a mess, but it looks good. It is a relaxed and welcoming space.
Plating up the kottu
The hawker-style cooking area is right by the entry door –a big barbeque grill plate with preparation benches and a wet area. It is not a lot of space, but somehow manages to fit in two or three cooks at a time. It is organised chaos, as delicious dish after delicious dish is created.
Making egg roti
Tonight’s menu is designed to showcase the full range of Sri Lankan hawker food that Pavlov’s Duck will offer. Authenticity is established with a glossary of Sri Lankan food terms on the menu and enhanced with the inclusion of selected Sri Lankan imports such as Lion Larger (or should that be Lager?), Mendis Old Arrack and Elephant House Ginger Beer (our choice, and it is great!). Australian contributions are also carefully sourced from boutique suppliers: Shiraz cabernet from Naked Run Hill 5 in South Australia; coffee from Melbourne roasters and brewers Padre; and tea from Melbourne fine tea importers Larsen and Thompson are but three examples.
Noah has also issued a challenge – enjoy authentic Sri Lankan food as the Sri Lankans do, using only fingers.
First up: Thosai (fermented crepes) and Vada (spicy donuts) are served with sambar curry (lentil vegetarian curry) and green sambol (coconut, lime and chilli relish). This is a tasty start to the evening, and an easy first test of our skills at eating with fingers. Bilby especially likes the sambol.
Next up: red and white string hoppers (steamed rice flour noodles, formed into a shape like an untidy disc of string) with kiri hodi (tumeric and coconut curry that is almost like a soup) and pol mallung (coconut sambol/relish). Fingers are getting very sticky, but the taste buds love it.
Third course: Godhamba roti (some with egg and some plain) with dhal and chicken curry (refer the first pic in the post). The curry and dhal are good, beautifully spiced. We preferred the plain roti, but are starting to flag…
Kottu with crab
Kottu with chicken
The main event: Kottu with crab, chicken or vegetarian. Kottu is chopped up roti stir fried on a grill plate with egg, vegetables and Sri Lankan spices. To this base you can add any flavours and textures you like. The crab is the standout of the evening – moist and yummy; the chicken is also pretty good – spicy and falling off the bone tender; and the vegetarian runs a close third.
Next mix savoury and sweet: Hoppers (coconut pancakes, some with a whole egg) served with seeni sambal (sweet spicy onion relish) or butter sprinkled with coconut sugar. I am not keen on onion relish, no matter its culinary provenance, so be guided on this by Bilby, who reckons it is pretty good. I am happy with my hoppers spread with melted butter and sprinkled with coconut sugar. Again, we prefer the plain version, feeling that the whole egg hoppers do not seem to add much value to the experience. We did discover that the eggy versions are traditional food for children in Sri Lanka – perhaps you need to grow up with them to appreciate them best.
Dessert: Curd and treacle (Greek yoghurt and Kithul treacle). We have eaten a huge amount of really good, spicy food, and this very simple combination is a fine dessert. Kithul treacle is from Sri Lanka and made from palm sugar rather than sugar cane. Compared to sugar cane treacle, it is milder in flavour and a bit runnier – closer to golden syrup, but with a more complex taste.
To finish off the night we opt for the Hot Chocolate by Monsieur Truffe (another boutique Melbourne supplier) – the punch of bitter dark chocolate provides an ideal foil to the spicy food.
As we thank our hosts and stumble happily into the night there is one question remaining: Bilby has visited Sri Lanka and greatly enjoyed the food, but her recollection is of a chilli heat level approximating a flame thrower, even from the flashy hotel restaurants. The chilli level tonight has been mild to medium – far from flame thrower. Alanna admits that they reduced the chilli heat for that evening’s function. If you want a really authentic experience, you just have to ask. But be warned, Sri Lankans like their curries VERY hot.
Pavlov and friend