Kolamba, London W1: ‘Big, bold lessons from a faraway island’ - restaurant review

Grace Dent
Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian

On my way to lunch at Kolamba, a new Sri Lankan place on Kingly Street in Soho, I got to thinking how one of the great subplots of British eating over the past 30 years is our growing curiosity and adoration of spice. Diners who might once have known curry simply as something that’s vivid red or fragrant brown and hails roughly from India now know a Malaysian laksa from a Thai massaman, or a katsu from a scotch bonnet-laden curry goat.

Recently, more of us have been turned on to the joys of Sri Lanka. Kari and rich sambol served with a crisp, rice-and-coconut crepe, possibly with an egg baked into its base – an egg hopper – and smeared with sticky chutney. It’s a godly combination that, once tasted, you’ll wonder where it has been all your life. Patently, Sri Lankan food has been cooked lovingly in Wembley, Tooting and East Ham for decades, but it was the opening three years ago of the very much adored Hoppers in Soho that shoved Sri Lankan cuisine blinking into the “cool food” spotlight.

I’m always curious how people feel when their cuisine is declared cool. I say this with some sympathy, as a Cumbrian woman who has spent 20 years shouting: “That is not Cumberland sausage!” at London menus. “It’s the wrong shape and it needs 10 times more black pepper.”

Kolamba’s spiced and breadcrumbed fish ‘cutlets’: ‘Like spiced and breadcrumbed gefilte fish balls.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian

Safe to say, however, that Kolamba’s owners Eroshan and Aushi Meewella’s reaction to Sri Lanka being “incredibly now, darling” has been to open this lovely new spot just off Regent Street, to showcase the food they remember from their childhood in Kolamba (that’s the Sinhalese name for Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital).

Colombo is home to people of Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Burgher and Malay descent. From the moment you walk through the door at Kolamba, it all feels very personal, as if the owners’ hearts are ablaze on their sleeves, eager to show the best of the street snacks, family dinners and teatime treats they remember from home. Each dish is a patchwork of people, places and things. A small plate of delicious fish cutlets from the “Bites” section of the menu are more akin to gefilte fish balls, formed from pilchards and potato, spiced and breadcrumbed. They’re a throwback from when the Dutch landed in Point Pedro and stayed for another 156 years. We eat sweet, flaky jackfruit patties and a small plate of Aunty Mo’s chatti roast – beef dry-fried with chilli, tomato and onion, served on buttery, string hoppers rice noodles.

If we’d simply stayed with the snacks section and ordered multiple cutlets, it would have been equally joyous. Instead, we ranged across the curries, sambols and hoppers, ordering too much until the table heaved.

Kolamba’s jackfruit patties: ‘Sweet and flaky.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

A judiciously seasoned, sunset-yellow monkfish curry was followed by a bowl of parippu – red split lentils cooked in coconut and turmeric – that has made me rethink my entire lentil dal game. Why do my lentils never taste as rich and nuanced, yet soothing? How have I tried 876 dal recipes off the internet and still produce lacklustre stodge that pleases no one? Is this God’s way of making me book a fact-finding expedition to Colombo?

We also ate our way through prawns fried in crushed black pepper and green chilli, and Kolamba’s hoppers, which are delicate, spongy and yielding in all the correct places. The diced tomato sambol with lime juice, green chilli and red onion is so very good, it would go with literally anything.

Each time our server tried to make room on the table, we fought to keep hold of precious slicks of date and lime chutney, and ordered extra portions of the rather tough but useful pol roti coconut flatbread, which the menu describes as “rustic” and which does the job of reaching the puddles of runny egg yolk, coconut smears and cardamom-scented sauces that no fork or spoon can reach.

Kolamba’s monkfish curry with egg hopper and sambol: ‘Judiciously seasoned.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian

After a Kolomba-colada – think piña colada made with vanilla-infused Ceylon arrack and cinnamon – we drank a bottle of Bastion De La Cité Rosé, not caring a damn for wine etiquette or the fact that I was dressed in a quilted jacket and snow boots. The pudding list is short, so we ate more hoppers, these ones drizzled in smoky kithul treacle.

Kolamba is a small, independent, family-run Sri Lankan restaurant, within running and hiding distance of Oxford Street. They cook from scratch and want to teach you 100 new things about Sri Lanka, and they are offering big, bold lessons from a small, faraway island. You’d be daft not to take them up on it.

Kolamba 21 Kingly Street, London W1, 020-3815 4201. Open Tues-Fri, noon-3pm, 5.30-10.30pm; Sat & Sun, noon-10.30pm. About £35 a head, plus drinks and service.

Food 8/10
Atmosphere 7/10
Service 8/10