San Francisco is about to get its very first Sri Lankan restaurant, but be careful about calling it an ethnic food spot. Chef Brian Fernando, whose new 1601 Bar & Kitchen (1601 Howard Street) we broke the news about last year, is playing with the Sri Lankan flavors that he grew up eating, but with a decidedly modern and California bent. "California cuisine has become so broad," Fernando says. "I really wanted to do a menu that was going to have flavors that were already familiar to people, but with dishes that were new and different."
Fernando’s vision was of a restaurant where he could still employ the techniques and fine ingredients he used for years at San Jose’s Le Papillon, but in a casual, small-plates environment where people could still just sit at the bar and have a beer and an egg hopper — a traditional Sri Lankan street food item — for under $20.
There’s hardly any Sri Lankan food to be found in the Bay Area, and Fernando sources most of his non-perishable ingredients from a Sri Lankan grocer in Sacramento, where he grew up. The flavors are reminiscent of Thai and South Indian cuisines, with plenty of coconut, coconut milk, coriander, ginger, and curry spice. But Fernando is also bringing in more unusual ingredients, like spicy galangal-pickled vegetables, and the very Sri Lankan lime pickle, to create interesting new dishes and twists on standards like a crudo with coconut and lime pickle; and a kale salad with a fermented black garlic "Caesar" dressing, mixed with toasted coconut, parmesan, watermelon radish, and also brightened with lime pickle. See the opening menu here.
The design by Brent Kanbayashi is sleek, cool, and reclaimed wood-free, with textured stone tile, white-washed wood paneling, and gray paint adorning the walls, and a solid walnut dining bar that seats twelve. Also, there’s a large communal table, a private dining room enclosed by barn doors, and table seating for 22. Some construction delays have kept the place behind schedule, but with the final addition of a large fixture over the bar, housing wine bottles and glassware and also serving as a light source, the place is ready for its close-up.
Though final inspections are still pending this week, Fernando is hoping to be softly open by this weekend. Stay tuned for a definitive opening date.
1601 Bar & Kitchen - 1601 Howard Street at 12th - 415-552-1601 - Opening, maybe, by March 22