by Christopher Wallace, 02/11/2014
Tompkinsville, a little neighborhood wedged like the blade of a key into the northeast corner of Staten Island, near the Staten Island Ferry, is home to one of the largest Sri Lankan communities in America. Now any "little" Sri Lanka—let alone the Little Sri Lanka—promises some good eats, and here the best of this bunch might be New Asha, famed for its perfectly blistered rotis, the Sri Lankan flatbread comparable to Indian naan. It's a casual destination, where locals meet to eat beneath the tiny TV tuned, often as not, to a far-off cricket match. Lining one wall of the restaurant is a steam table laden with mutton curry, eggplant stew, coconut broth soups and the myriad relishes called sambols. At the counter, still more fried delights and baked goods—including the deliriously spongy rice and lentil dosas—are kept under glass, offering powerful temptation.
Right across the street on Victory Boulevard, next to the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, Dosa Garden specializes in the Sri Lankan crepes its name references (with a dozen or so types to choose from), often stuffed with potato filling. The menu is vegetarian friendly, full of familiar curries, breads, chutneys and samosas. A few doors down, Lak Bojun is a similarly relaxed snack stop, as beloved for its cozy mom-and-pop-shop hospitality (it is in fact owned by a couple) as it is for its rice and curry and lamprie, a traditional casserole. Another block south, Lanka Grocery purveys a mind-melting selection of Sri Lankan foodstuffs, including exotic produce and cooking supplies like clay pots.
Chef-owner Sanjay Handapangoda recently moved his restaurant San Rasa to Corson Avenue at Victory Boulevard, a few blocks west of the Bay Street location it had occupied since opening in 2007. The new digs allow the eatery to be a bit comfier than the aforementioned spots; San Rasa is a proper sit-down restaurant, and its curries are worth settling in for. The bright, smoky flavors of their split pea, black lamb, kingfish and squid curries draw consistent praise, and their coconut milk custard (watalappan) is a fan favorite. Southeast of there is another delicious destination: Lakruwana Gourmet, where, as New York Times food critic Pete Wells notes, the ambiance "verges on spectacular." Owner Lakruwana Wijesinghe shipped the decor from Sri Lanka, where his wife, chef Jayantha, learned recipes from her mother.
Venturing just beyond the bounds of the neighborhood into nearby Stapleton, the adventurous traveler might happen upon Full Cup Café, a coffee shop that doubles up as a bar/club where you might catch sets from a variety of local bands. Tapas, also in Stapleton, is really good at what you'd imagine—small plates (smoked salmon stuffed with guacamole; avocado filled with goat cheese; ceviche; grilled chorizo) and vino. The restaurant turns up the volume late at night for patrons who like to dance. Gatsby's on the Bay, a more refined spot, does traditional American fare (think shrimp cocktail, mushroom pot pie, Caesar salad and a truffled spin on macaroni and cheese) that would fit neatly into a classic Jazz Age novel. And 120 Bay Café, located near St. George, does a no-nonsense riff on contemporary comfort food. Dine on crab cakes, pulled-pork sandwiches, garlic-rubbed skirt steak and more, in a lively atmosphere that features a well-stocked bar and events like open-mic and trivia nights.
If you’re interested in more than just a visit to a bar or a boîte, consider timing your excursion for the second Saturday of the month, when Staten Island hosts a local art walk from Stapleton all the way around the North Shore esplanade. Deep Tanks Studio, a local gallery, event space and photography studio, hosts shows and openings (of both visual and performance art) far more frequently. And the Staten Island LGBT Community Center is an incredibly valuable hub, offering a wealth of services and sponsoring various events, including a Pride parade every year. The Universal Temple of the Arts is as advertised, hosting a diverse array of cultural programming—art, film, music and more. (The Temple also organizes the yearly Staten Island Jazz Festival.) In seeking to "promote positive values through arts," NYC Arts Cypher manages a multidisciplinary calendar of events, including an annual haunted house. But if all that culture is too ephemeral, a visitor can mark his or her adventure—permanently—with a visit to Ink Chyx Tattoo Studio & Art Gallery.
Silver Lake Park, located at the neighborhood's southwestern edge, recalls Tompkinsville's arcadian existence in colonial times, when the area was renowned for its wealth of fresh spring water. First protected by New York State in 1900, the 209-acre green space, Staten Island's response to Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, features tulip trees, oaks and sassafras. The local golf course here was built in 1929, and the City has since added tennis and baseball facilities, as well as a playground. Farther south, skaters can ollie and kick flip their way over to the massive indoor 5050 Skatepark on the bay to hone their gnarliness—in every season. And the pocket-size Tompkinsville Park, named for Daniel D. Tompkins, the former New York governor and vice president under James Monroe, is gleaming anew after undergoing renovations a few years ago.
The park is home to The Hiker, Allen G. Newman's oversize bronze soldier sculpted to commemorate the fallen in the Spanish-American wars. It's just one of many inspiring sights on Staten Island's north shore. Whether gazing on the Manhattan skyline from the stands of the Richmond County Bank Ballpark (season permitting), strolling on the esplanade as the sun sets just beyond the outreached arm of the Statue of Liberty, taking in a show at the St. George Theatre or setting sails for further exploration, adventure awaits.