A concise menu of Sri Lankan-inspired curries using quality ingredients and precise spice blends is being cooked up by this ex-St John's pair. Jennie Milsom orders a takeaway
A flock of regulars have flown back to Sparrow in Lewisham, south-east London, since Yohini Nandakumar and Terry Blake reopened their doors in May with a menu redesigned for delivery.
"We recognise all the names, all the faces – everyone who's supported us through it," says Nandakumar.
The couple serves restaurant-quality food, made to order, such as grilled meats and salads, as well as curries, all requiring "superb ingredients, simply treated". Says Nandakumar: "We're trying to be a restaurant that does delivery. We change it up every week and run out before the end of the night. We want it to be that kind of chalkboard-style delivery service."
Since Sparrow took over the former chicken shop premises in 2017, the ex-St John's duo quickly amassed a loyal following of diners who squeezed into tables to tuck into small plates that take inspiration from around the world. While squeezing into tables is currently off the menu, Sri Lankan-inspired curries most definitely are and feature on Sparrow's new Road to Jaffna menu, which takes the city where Nandakumar's parents are from as its starting point.
Takeaway has been a learning curve for the couple, who are constantly improving their "narrow and focused" operation. "We've come into this cold – we've got no more idea about takeaway than when we order a takeaway," says Nandakumar. "We randomly picked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We weren't planning on starting a new business – we just wanted to make sure the old one survived."
Redesigning dishes that could be packaged quickly for a steady stream of couriers ("you need to get it in their hand in 10 seconds") was another challenge. "We are thinking on our feet, as I'm sure everybody is," says Nandakumar. "
We are thinking on our feet, as I'm sure everybody is
Selecting the right packaging has been a key decision: "It decides the portioning for you, how it packs, how it stacks, how hot it's going to be, whether it's going to be able to contain a saucy dish, or even keep it cold. You wouldn't believe how much you have to think about it! You don't want to end up not being able to run your business because you're waiting for a bunch of cardboard boxes."
The menu is arranged into short eats, starters, curry and desserts. All curries come with a side of rice, coconut dhal and a brown paper bag of house-made Bombay mix – fried onions with chilli and crispy noodles that will have you reaching for a beer.
Top of the list is a Jaffna lamb curry (£15). "When I think of a Jaffna curry, I would always gravitate towards a lamb curry. My dad's favourite is mutton, so that's what he always cooks," Nandakumar says. Sri Lankan curries are hotter, with more rounded, savoury spices than those found further north in India, yet there are similarities between the cuisines of the Jaffna province and Tamil Nadu on the southern tip of India – the use of coconut instead of dairy, for example: "It's really hard to get dairy in parts of Jaffna – you can only get powdered milk," Nandakumar adds.
Sparrow makes its own curry powder blend and their Jaffna is milder than her dad's, Nandakumar says, with less chilli and more coriander and cumin. There's also a Colombo prawn and coconut curry (£15.50) – a milder, more "international dish" that's comforting and moreish, its huge juicy prawns and green beans bobbing in a jazzy yellow sauce.
In ‘short eats', the pepper and fennel crispy pork belly (£6.50) is a generous pot of meltingly tender cubes that comes with a dark and intense tamarind sauce. The coconut chutney, served with the crisp discs of lentil-based parappu vadda (£9), is made from fresh coconut. "I've had chutney made from desiccated coconut or frozen grated coconut and it's not the same at all. When you get it fresh there's something a bit more alive about it – an acidity. It's lighter and creamier," says Nandakumar
The desserts – a mango brûlée and a coconut cheesecake, both £5.50 – come in deep foil cups. "This dish was really created around the packaging. Terry used to be head pastry chef at St John's, so he's definitely in his element when he's making desserts." A recent tweak was adding a zingy passion fruit jelly topping to cut through the sweetness.
As for reopening fully, Nandakumar says they may explore the possibility of an outside licence to take the pressure off the floor and continue the takeaway operation alongside a revised restaurant service. For now, though, sending food out "into the void" is the new norm and Sparrow customers take to Instagram to express their joy. "We genuinely love feedback from people and to work out what we can do to improve. We want to be a dynamic kitchen."
2 Rennell Street, Lewisham, London SE13 7HD
From the menu
- Rice pancakes and milagi podi £4
- Coconut, carrot and cashew salad £4
- Chilli skillet-fried chicken £9.50
Rice and curry
- Jaffna lamb curry £15
- Pepper chicken curry £14
- Varuval fish and tamarind curry £15
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