A husband-and-wife team spices up the Ellsworth, Maine restaurant scene with their lip-tingling Sri Lankan cooking.
By Joe RicchioThe platter of Sri Lankan “hot wings” arrives tableside with the irresistible aroma of fried chilies, garlic, and vinegar. I dive in, each bite intensifying the spice. I can feel the burn around the edges of my mouth. An extra napkin, to dab my brow, would come in handy. I should stop, but mmm, those flavors are so balanced that the pleasure outweighs the pain. Plus, the cooling raita — a yogurt-based dipping sauce — helps me power through. Soon, nothing’s left but a pile of bones.
What sets Sri Lankan cooking apart from closely related (and already spicy) southern Indian food, says Sanjeeva Abeyasekera, who runs Serendib with his wife, Menemsha, is even more “oomph.” Sanjeeva grew up in Sri Lanka and moved to Maine to attend College of the Atlantic, where he met Menemsha, a Bar Harbor native and fellow student. He worked in local kitchens for a decade, then — missing the oomph of his mom’s home cooking — opened Serendib with Menemsha in 2015, in a tiny corner space in downtown Ellsworth.
He figured it might take some time to accustom local diners to spicy Sri Lankan chow, so the menu includes familiar Indian dishes too, like korma and tikka masala, and Sanjeeva is always willing to tone down spiciness to order. “I wanted to slowly ease people in,” he says. But after a year, Serendib had caught on well enough that Sanjeeva took over an adjacent storefront, doubling seating capacity and adding a new kitchen.
2 State St., Ellsworth, 207-664-1030
Starters and sides
$3.50–$9, entrées $12–$17.
Just don’t wear white, what with curries, chutneys, and other sauces being slung around the table.
When You Go
Catch an after-dinner show at The Grand; raise a pint at Airline Brewing Company’s English-pub–style taproom; build an appetite with a hike at Great Pond Mountain.
Warm, savory lentil donuts served with chutney and a spicy vegetable stew make for a great start to a meal, as does fresh naan with a sweet chutney of tamarind, coriander, and onion. The brightness of each ingredient pops in every bite. Tack on an order of colorful, crunchy, house-pickled vegetables to cut the heat of other dishes with some acidity.
Traditionally, Sanjeeva says, Sri Lankans eat family-style, and Serendib’s side dishes are actually best thought of as an opportunity to build a shareable meal for the table: bowls of fiery eggplant sambal, butternut-squash curry, creamy red dhal, deviled potato, beetroot curry — all are vegetarian (common in Sri Lanka) and dairy-free (coconut milk adds much of the richness).
The lamb meatball curry, an entrée, has meatballs almost inconceivably delicate, bound only with egg — no breadcrumbs — to show off the ground lamb’s subtly sweet, grassy flavor. The sauce they swim in is satisfyingly creamy without feeling heavy, thanks to a punchy spice level. Another main dish, kottu, provides a taste of classic Sri Lankan street food, with chopped flatbread, egg, and crisp vegetables, plus a choice of curry and meat.
The drink menu is beer and wine only, but with solid options in both categories (including suds from Sri Lanka’s Lion Brewery). For dessert, the ethereal, lightly sweet palm-syrup cheesecake is nothing like its heavy New York counterpart. And Menemsha uses Sanjeeva’s mom’s recipe to make “mom’s love cake,” a semolina cake flavored with cardamom and cashew and topped with chai cream.
Serendib is an easy place to learn to love Sri Lankan food. Sure, you can always ease in with a more familiar Indian dish or take the spice down a few notches on a Sri Lankan plate, but better just to go for it: Start off with the hot wings, and explore the menu from there. Embrace the burn — and, more importantly, the flavor. No shame in ordering extra raita or a mango lassi either.