Walking into most restaurants you’re either greeted by a smiling host or waitstaff, or maybe no one at all. At Kurumba, Sydney’s new Sri Lankan eatery, we are first met with a wave of spices – cumin, cloves and cardamom – being cooked down gently in coconut oil so it’s fragrant and hunger-inducing. We imagine it smells like dinner along the palm-fringed Unawatuna Beach and street food stalls in bustling Colombo. And after a year of new openings in Sydney filled with opulent brasseries and lavish steakhouses, it smells exactly like the kinds of things we want to eat right now.
Kurumba is special in lots of ways, though perhaps the second most special thing is that the spot is a family-owned and run affair. And that family is the De Hoedts, who were behind Dulwich Hill’s beloved café the Fold. Here at Kurumba, steering the ship again is Augustus, who has more than 35 years of cooking experience under his belt. Joining him is son, co-owner and pastry chef Travin (ex Parlar, Bennelong, Bistro Guillaume) and his wife Saaya (ex-Sokyo, Quay and Sixpenny); and other son and co-owner Jason (ex-The Star and Franca). Rounding out the killer team is matriarch Dilki. Just like the spices, she too greets us at the door with a warm smile, and we know we’re going to like it here.
The third special thing about Kurumba is its prime location on Surry Hills’ Crown Street. The two-storey Victorian townhouse has been reimagined into a modest yet polished 50-seat diner. Downstairs the walls are painted sage green, playing a support act to the main event: the hopper bar. Upstairs, dusk pink is contrasted by exposed brick walls, and there’s a balcony for alfresco dining. It's prime date-night real estate (and would be even better if the lights were dimmed a touch).
That leaves us to the most special thing about Kurumba, which is the food, of course.
We nearly don’t order the pan rolls. And when two chubby fingers appear crumbed, bronzed and flaked with sea salt, we realise what a mistake that would have been. I pick one up, dip it in the vibrant pineapple ketchup and take a bite. Inside, the smoked brisket is flavoursome and juicy, the outer crepe has a glorious melted cheese-like consistency, and the sauce is bright, fruity and punchy. Another serving, please.
The good snacks keep on rolling with jackfruit cutlets spiked with turmeric and adorned with a green chilli and coconut chutney. It’s spice-heady, seasoned and textural. Travin’s pastry work is on display with the seeni sambol puff: a picture-perfect savoury number made up of puff pastry layered with the sweet onion and tamarind jam, creamy buffalo curd and a crisp curry leaf. The pastry work is flawless, and it’s a clever way to jazz up the Sri Lankan condiment.
Augustus recommends we try a traditional Sri Lankan drink, so we do. Refreshing and thirst-quenching, the Lucky Fish Seaside Toddy tastes like a funky, boozy coconut water, and I can see myself cracking one on a hot day. Elsewhere, there’s a decent selection of wines by the glass, starting from $12.
A generous serving of soft shell crab arrives tossed in a hot butter coating with spring onion and red chilli. The meat is tender, dollops of black garlic aioli add an umami element, and fresh lime lifts, though the outer batter lacks crunch.
We watch as the hoppers are cooked right in front of us before being served with a trio of sambols. Soft on the inside, crisp on the outside, with a subtle tang from the fermented rice flour, the hopper is the right vehicle to scoop up our dark and unctuous beef short rib curry, which has the depth of a dish that’s been braised for hours, the aromatics building on one another like Lego. Sweetened with treacle and rich with coconut cream, it’s so good I want to bottle it and take it home.
There are five vegetarian curries on the menu, and we go for the green mango one. Hunks of the fruit are dressed in a sweet, spiced and sticky sauce laced with cardamom and mustard seeds. We then take a mouthful of the fluffy rice, studded with raisins, cashews and fried onions, and then go back to the hopper, rip some off, and dive back into the curry. And then we repeat, alternating between the bowls, textures and flavours, until everything’s gone but the memory of a joyous, delicious meal.
We finish with a pretty pink soft serve faluda topped with a scattering of pistachios, chewy dried fruit, crisp vermicelli and a cherry. It tastes like a rose, reminds me of the musk sticks of my childhood, and it’s a sweet note to end on.
Kurumba means 'young coconut' in the local language of Sinhala, and we reckon it’s a fitting name for this new, heart-warming spot. Here’s hoping it manages to ride the Sydney wave and age like a fine coconut in the years to come.
Time Out Sydney never writes starred reviews from hosted experiences – Time Out covers restaurant and bar bills for reviews so that readers can trust our critique.