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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Holi spring!

Bozeman is not yet New York City, but we’re working on it. Between the Mini Coopers and martini bars, a visiting alien with a working knowledge of gentrification might think she’s in SoHo. So as much as it originally surprised me to learn that the underground restaurant scene exists here, it shouldn’t have.

The supper club or pop-up restaurant movement, thank Dionysus, is here.

Ever heard of Laurian’s Table? Probably not. That’s because Ranga Perera doesn’t advertise. An underground restaurateur, Perera describes himself as a “culinary guerrilla for hire.” He holds private dinner parties in various locations around town, preparing and serving a hand-picked menu (usually of the Asian variety – Korean, Sri Lankan, Thai) for a limited number of guests can experience at a cost, typically, of around $60 per person. Along with savory, exotic food and an intimate atmosphere, consider the irony part of the experience; Laurian’s Table doesn’t offer a venue or a fixed menu, but it is THE place to meet and eat.

Ranga was raised in Sri Lanka, an island country in the northern Indian Ocean, and other Arab countries until he was 10. (Coincidentally, Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon, and it’s where Julia Child met her husband, Paul.) These were important years, much of which spent in the kitchen with his grandmother, who imparted to him the love for food and the cooking process. He often accompanied her to the fish market at 4 o’clock in the morning to get the best and freshest seafood available. He also spent a lot of time watching, inquiring, assisting, and learning—a rare occurrence in Sri Lankan culture, for a young boy in what is traditionally the women’s domain.

Both his mother and father (for whom Laurien’s Table is named) love to cook, eat, entertain, and generally regard dining as an experience. Perhaps a precursor to his current vocation, Ranga recalls from very early in his life the “crab stabs,” merry seafood barbeques on the bluffs and coves of Oman with his father. When he was 7, Ranga’s grandma gave him his first cookware, a miniature version of the Sri Lankan terra cotta wood-fired stove and cooking pot, with the ingredients to make a fresh coconut milk and tapioca pudding with cashews and Kitul honey. His reaction could not be overstated; Ranga loved the gift.

A few years later his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area. Growing up in California, he attended U.C. Berkeley, where he studied international business. While working toward a ‘responsible’ career, Ranga also found that he had a genuine passion for cooking. “I was always mucking about with food,” he says.

When it sunk in that he may need to pursue this mucking and ditch the business career path, he followed a friend’s suggestion and moved to Montana to cook at the Covered Wagon Ranch and, later, the Yellowstone Club. He moved on to Over the Tapas, where he started in the kitchen and graduated to the front of the house where. As any Tapas veteran could tell you, his superior hospitality skills were put to good use. Perera credits much of his wine knowledge to Tapas, as well as to Jesse Kegel, the executive chef (who can now also be seen darting about the kitchen at Perera’s events).

Pretty soon, his free time was consumed by requests for cooking and entertaining outside of Tapas. “I started looking to take it to the next level; my services were becoming more in demand, and I was wanting more of challenge,” he remembers. “Every time I cooked, all my friends wanted to come over. I started asking around, and when I had 10 to 20 people who were willing to cover the cost of my time and ingredients, I decided to do this. It was strictly word-of-mouth; if I didn’t know you, you weren’t coming.”

From that exclusive position, Laurian’s Table has evolved. In October of 2012, architect EJ Engler of Medicine Hat, Inc., attended one of Ranga’s dinners and offered a more permanent spot at his studio in Gallatin Gateway. Several dinners have now been hosted at Engler’s studio, what once was the town grocery store. At this point, inclusion involves only a simple call or email to Ranga, who’ll henceforth notify you of upcoming events. Larger scale operations, like those in NYC have websites where you can purchase your seat using PayPal.

I attended a recent dinner at Engler’s studio. Called the Holi Indian Dinner, it was in honor of spring. The menu was inspired by the colors of Holi, a multi-day Indian celebration that marks the beginning of spring. Centered annually in Varanasi, every man, woman, and child hits the streets armed with brightly-colored tikka powders and water pistols loaded with dyed water, having one giant water fight where the mass ends up covered in bright colors, forsaking the monochrome winter. At noon, a bell sounds and everyone stops to eat a massive, communal Indian lunch.

Hard for us to imagine…so Chef Ranga designed Bhel Puri Chaat (pictured, top: a mango, cucumber, and red onion salad), Pork Vindaloo with Gobi Masala (pictured, below: spicy pork curry with savory cauliflower sauté), traditional tamarind chutney, steamed yellow rice, and Gajar Ka Halwa (warm organic carrot and saffron pudding with crushed pistachio and a drizzle of cardamom cream). All gluten-free, I should add, and all paired with specific wines, compliments of Vino Per Tutti. Oh, and dessert came with a Varanasi-style Masala chai tea. While I have never liked chai before, I liked this chai.

A guest asked Ranga if he is interested in cooking much “American” cuisine. “The Valentine’s Day menu is probably about as Western as I’m going to get,” he replied. “That was a grass-fed beef tenderloin with a tomato-saffron puree and a three-hour gratin…” (he lost me at “tomato-saffron;” I’d spring for that). But he is open to growth, especially if it involves pushing Bozeman out of its comfort zone.

“With what I’m doing, food is the obsession. The restaurant world is the reverse. It’s about numbers, and I’m not a food scientist. My cooking is based in comfort food. I love the small groups—the energy, the food, the love. Those all make it special. I love bringing the palate and the soul together. Wandering through an Indian neighborhood; finding that mom-and-pop place, those places that speak to a culture—that’s what I’m interested in. What are you eating at home? We all have our guilty pleasures. Food is a communing with other cultures, other people.”

As Chef Ranga says, talk with your mouth full.  -TBM

Author's note: To get yourself on Ranga’s email list and be notified of future events, contact 406.600.9903 or

Editor's note: All photos courtesy of Laurian's Table on Facebook.

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