With the old Hollywood detective, ‘Colombo’, you’d always see him with a Mac – and whilst Colombo in Sri Lanka isn’t short of the creeping malaise of fast-food, you can still get an excellent meal without resorting to a Mac.
The last thing we’d expect to suggest in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, is that you should go to an hotel restaurant, to enjoy some of the best Sri Lankan food you’ll find anywhere.
What city restaurants do exist tend to be overpriced ‘fashionable’ haunts that use smart advertising to draw the ‘in crowd’ to their doors.
As a general rule, we find, hotel catering is over-pretentious, over-priced and over-done, suffering from a corporate ‘factory food’ mentality born of volume rather than care.
Not so with our two suggestions below. We were recommended to each by a high-rolling Sri Lankan entrepreneur that we met in our hotel and who we later discovered was one of the ‘main men’ in Colombo. He turned us away from hype and insisted that we try the following two places.
Both surprised us, not only because of the quality of food presented and the manner in which it was prepared but also because of the ambiance of the surroundings, the attention of the staff and the ability to divorce itself and us from the hotel psyche.
Each of the meals cost around £50 per head including a decent bottle of wine.
As the name suggests, Curry Leaf concentrates on authentic Sri Lankan food, prepared in any way you like, amidst the thatched surroundings of a beach front restaurant that is nowhere near the beach – but in the Hilton Hotel, Fort, Colombo.
Again, we don’t particularly rate the Hilton chain, preferring smaller boutique hotels but we couldn’t fault the Curry Leaf.
Although we’ve been to Sri Lanka on numerous occasions, we declared ourselves amateurs with Sri Lankan food to the maitre d’, who then gave us an escorted tour around each of the ‘stalls’ that prepare food to order as you circulate.
First was the fresh fish stall, with fresh squid, prawns, crab, oyster and lobster displayed on ice, with a brief description of each of the preparations on offer.
As we moved on to the next stall we paused at the old bicycle to help ourselves to a paper flute of fried chana before watching a ‘stallholder’ prepare Koteu – a bread finely diced together with cooked vegetables, mutton and egg. Another prepares ‘Hoppers’ – thin dish nests made from flour and egg – and another, fresh breads.
Together with the endless selection of salads, soups and supporting delicacies, it’s a fascinating display that although buffet based, revolves mainly around freshly prepared dishes to order.
We’re so mesmerised by the whole presentation that we capitulate and ask the maitre d’ to bring us a continuous selection of foods for a meal that a typical Sri Lankan family would eat for a special event.
First course is a smoked gourd salad with squid and black peppercorn prawns – just delicious. This is followed by a seemingly endless supply of vegetable broth, Koteu, Kohima dry curry, Cashew and Green Bean curry, Dhal and String Hoppers with Coconut Sambul.
Somewhere in the middle of all this comes the most amazing Crispy Crab in a sweet chilli sauce of heavenly herbs!
It’s so delightful, that despite creaking at the seams by now, I have to order a second helping – much to the maitre d’s delight and amazement.
We make a token effort towards desserts (simply in the interests of research you understand) of Wattapallam (made with coconut milk, jaggery, egg and spices) and Kaum oil cakes but the most settling of all is the plain curd dish drizzled, or drowned, with treacle.
As we sit quietly, recovering in splendid sufficiency, our maitre d’ brings us a clear ginger tea with a little cube of jaggery (cane sugar including the molasses, with palm sap); on the side to freshen our palate and give us the little boost necessary to leave the restaurant!
Overall, a memorable experience.
Walking through the atrium of the Cinnamon Grand Colombo, we have no expectations of an intimate meal until we walk out into its tropical garden.
We’re momentarily side-tracked by the attractive canopied dining booths of ’Tao’ the Chinese restaurant by the palm fringed tropical ‘pond’– but we’ve been recommended to Lagoon, which is adjacent to it on the other edge of the water.
At first glance it’s a bit of a ‘glass box’ and we choose to dine outside in the beautiful balmy evening temperature, sitting beside the water’s edge.
We go inside to receive help from our ‘food advisor’ (our term), Mr Subudu, who reminds us of Will Smith.
He bounces up to us and after a bit of friendly banter we ask him what the routine is. He points to the huge array of fish, crabs, lobsters, squid – you name it and it’s there selection – and says that all we do is select whatever we fancy and its then priced by weight.
He describes the texture and suitability of each fish for whichever course, throws in a bit of additional weight for the squid we’ve chosen (‘you do realise they’re like rubber,’ he explains) and helps us put together an enticing selection for our meal.
All of the selection is weighed in front of us and then passed to the team of chefs in the open cooking area behind the fish display.
It’s a hive of industry and it’s a few minutes before we head back outside to do some discrete damage to our bottle of wine that’s just chillin’, waiting for us
Our choice of seafood is a delight – Starters of chilli tempura squid with a platter of Lobster, Mussels, Crab and garlic King Prawns; mains of Red Snapper with steamed lime; Chilli Sole grilled with lemon butter kangkung (morning glory) garlic and soy sauce; mixed vegetable fried rice.
The atmosphere is restful and adjacent tables are not too close together at the water’s edge. We’d have been happy to sit there all night.
Our only criticism of this – and for that matter virtually every restaurant we’ve been to in the Far East, is that smoking is still very much part of daily life. Fine, if you’re a smoker but all smokers get banned to the outside; where if you’re unlucky, you get a constant cloud of smoke heading your way during the meal.
I know they’re a persecuted community but surely some form of segregation is necessary outside to avoid this – otherwise non-smokers are similarly penalised for dining al fresco.
Nothing is guaranteed to put me off a meal more, than sharing someone’s cigarette smoke with my food, especially as I hate smoking anyway!
Anyway, that’s a general personal gripe and doesn’t in any way detract from the wonderful eateries above.
Check them out when next in Colombo.
Colombo – the gateway to wonderful Sri Lanka, for your next holiday?
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