When I arrived last summer, Colombo was a-throb though it seemed that Sri Lanka’s then vaunted “booming economy” seemed a veneer. Nevertheless, Colombo today is in boutique boom. Recently-launched boutique hotels and boutique cafés ensure Colombo isn’t eating humble pie just yet.
This boutique beauty is a triumph of interior and, indeed, exterior décor. Courtyards abound. Stunner poolside. Birds crafted from recycled material flutter almost sinisterly but fascinatingly around whilst a tree, also intriguingly of recycled bits and bobs, shoots up to lofty Cloud Café where it showcases its glass-encased head to diners stretched across an immense communal table.
No excursive menus that meander into mediocrity. Start with samosas, perhaps Colombo’s only not oil-wallowed. Burgers, very good, are served with brisk salad. Linger over reduced balsamic vinegar, fat and fantastic: no rivulets running amok amidst sad salad, as at 5-stars. “Healthy” cheese and broccoli sandwich in marvellous homemade brown bread and low-fat cheese (menu lists the calories!) is strenuously recommended. Grilled piadinas imparts an interesting Italian element.
|Colombo Courtyard: The slimest-crusted pizzas on a good day
But the slimmest-crusted pizzas, on a good day, are arguably Colombo’s best. They are extremely generous with the mozzarella, and it actually stretches (no, it’s not that ubiquitous local substitute). But perhaps they are overly generous with the cheese, so should you prefer to remain lean request they with the cheese be mean.
Waiters like Prakash, Thanuja and Ramanayake endear. With others, service stretches like the mozzarella... All the more time to levitate on cloud nine.
Come down to earth, or at least to first-floor Scarlet Room, for modern European. Take the stairs and spot fascinating decorative elements like trishaw parts turned table lamps and tractor seats styled into bar stools at Loft Bar. Scarlet Room is rather an overwhelming space, but the framed photos relieve intensity. And one is soon (or not-so-soon, depending on the competence of the waiter on duty) distracted by spaghetti- actually al dente. Where else in Colombo? The chef spent 21 years in Switzerland, England and Italy, where he owned a restaurant (Indian, not Italian).
Desserts can impress. Try cardamom and black sesame crème brûlé. It’s rich, refined, neither sweet nor nauseatingly eggy, and actually contains cardamom- lots, indeed. Homemade ice creams: chilli chocolate might be prevalent abroad but debuts on the Colombo scene. Strawberry is fresh and fruitful. Cinnamon tastes of cinnamon. Unctuous vanilla contains real vanilla beans- as self-respecting vanilla ice cream ought. Were the ice creams a tad less sweet and not always melted, staff wouldn’t be left red-faced. Or should I say scarlet?
Final report card: With better food than at most eateries, prices lower than at certain chichi cafes and interesting ambience, despite the odd black mark, we concede predominantly red. Passed with flying colours has Cloud Café!
Satin Wilder Cafe
Milk & Honey unleashed the trend upon Colombo. Now everyone has cafés in boutiques, although not quite with the prototype’s originality, charm and quirkiness.
Satin Wilder is pretty. Extremely so. And one is led to believe conceptually inspired. The “designer” salads are splendid. Colombo’s best. Signature Satin Wilder salad comes with fancy quail’s eggs and a price of Rs 950. But quail’s eggs cost and portions are copious. I much prefer beetroot, apple and feta salad. Sounds banal? It’s all about the proportions. And young chef Tyrone who clearly understands food advises, “Ensure you get a mint leaf with every bite.” This salad leaves me in consternation. Tyrone smiles, “Surprised at such a young chef?” He is but twenty. Then again, experience confirms that the skinniest chefs are the most skilled!
“Shandwiches” the menu announces. It’s unclear whether this is a typo or a feat of great innovation. COLT (cheddar, onion, lettuce, tomato) “shandwich” becomes a CLT- it arrives sans onion. Worrying when tagged at Rs 580.
Coffee is Hansa (charged at Italian coffee prices), which Commons too serves but in mightier, jazzier concoctions.
Smoothies (try Tropical with fresh mango, banana and beads of crunchy passion), nevertheless, deliver. Desserts, less so. I found little joy in carrot cake. Wine improves with age. Cake doesn’t. Cheesecake requires an axe to cleave. Perhaps incentive to purchase some of the knives selling as “antiques” for startling prices? I almost choked on my salad when informed an English dinner set was going at Rs 25,000. Apparently, the English owner’s grandmother’s.
And yet, SW salads wow. Je ne raconte pas de salads, as the French would say!
Astonishing concept. “Boutique” café in that it sells Starbucks coffee, but isn’t a Starbucks. How? Thinking young owner Dulith won’t tell. But reveals he specifically picked Jawatha Road for it was named after a Javanese called Java when exports atop bullock-carts traversed the route to the interiors.
Dulith’s ambition is to educate Colombo about coffee.
He hopes people wouldn’t keep asking for those sugar-soaked, ice-creamed outrages which he refers to appositely as “faludas.” A coffee-shop serves coffee, not soft drinks. Java’s standard coffees are too mild for me. And yet, locals bemoan its bitterness. Dulith fears he might have to adulterate the concept to survive. Let’s hope not, for Java handsomely rewards its Starbucks-trained staff who each receives a tenth of the sales.
Starbucks is hardly for the coffee connoisseur. Nonetheless, try Iced Latte (double-shot espresso recommended). Java Chip Frappacino is predictably a best-seller, Espresso and Caramel Frappacinos are sweet, but very Starbucks. Straight espresso is the test of coffee-making prowess. Alas only 15 espressos/day sell and only to expats.
Dulith doesn’t want Java turned into a “restaurant” as customers expect. However, expect excellent carrot cake and chocolate. Sweet but wonderfully textured. Mango-espresso isn’t quite mastered. But they are learning and Dulith hopes Colombo will learn about coffee.
In a clothes boutique. Stark. Empty. 80s music plays remorselessly. Frappaccinos are a copy-and-paste of Coco Veranda’s Coco-Frappes (Strawberry, Blueberry, Black Forest), except Coco’s demure Filicori Zecchini is replaced by the more assertive Illy (which I like) and the fruit Coco uses cedes to fruit-flavoured sauces. Nevertheless, Black Forest Frappe is good. Barista young Nuwan customises it beautifully, invigorating the coffee, expurgating sweetness. It transpires he worked at Coco Veranda.
Menu: minimalist. Good brown bread baguettes. Greek salad has neither feta nor olives which Greek salad by definition incorporates. Chocolate brownie, if extremely sweet, is well-textured. Chocolate biscuit pudding excels. Sumptuous like satin, if somewhat sweet. Perhaps Colombo’s finest. Take-away recommended.