When asked what he wants people to know about Alexandra and Ward fashion café and cafe Nihonbashi (at the Odel promenade), restaurateur Chef Dharshan Munidasa replies, “Try the pizza. You cannot get anything this good within 2600km (Singapore is 2600km away). I have friends from New York who tell me that even in New York, [...]


Pizza’s the winner at this hub of good food

One- time finance professional turned pizza-chef Nishan Punzi and well known restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa have combined to bring you foodies, Alexandra and Ward fashion cafe and cafe Nihonbashi at Odel

Nishan Punzi serving up a classic Margherita pizza. Pix by Amila Gamage

When asked what he wants people to know about Alexandra and Ward fashion café and cafe Nihonbashi (at the Odel promenade), restaurateur Chef Dharshan Munidasa replies, “Try the pizza. You cannot get anything this good within 2600km (Singapore is 2600km away). I have friends from New York who tell me that even in New York, pizza this good is hard to find.” The only thing on the menu which is not from Dharshan is the pizza and it’s also one of the items he promotes the most. The pizzais  made by Chef NishanPunzi, who is known for his restaurant ORO 1889 which has relocated from Liberty Plaza to Alexandra and Ward fashioncafe, and is one of the only places in Colombo where one can find authentic Neapolitan pizza.

The Nihonbashi café offers sushi and a selection of other Japanese dishes from the Nihonbashi menu, alongside a few dishes from Dharshan’s three other restaurants Kaema Sutra, Ministry of Crab and the Tuna and the Crab. There are also dishes which he feels had no home in his four other restaurants – ones Dharshan  made for his daughter for breakfast, to serve at a wine tasting and even simple bites he made for his friends at a barbeque in Hatton. In short, they are everyday dishes which he wanted to offer up for anyone who wanted food which did not fit into a particular haute cuisine. Together, these different dishes make Alexandra and Ward fashion café a veritable hub of good food.

Dharshan Munidasa

Alexandra andWard café gets its name from the location of Odel at the intersection of Alexandra place and Ward place. Dharshan calls his section an upgrade of the previous Nihonbashi which was located inside Odel. This new café seats 75 people inside and can accommodate a further 16 people outside. The sushi and pizzais made in open spaces wherecustomers  can watch the progress of their meals from raw ingredients to a sumptuous feast.  In keepingto the trendy, fashionable theme of Odel, the interior of the café also has glass topped tables and generally elegant, minimalistic furnishings.

There is something about biting into a soft pizza with juicy toppings and gooey cheese that appeals to many. However, what many people do not know is that the year 1889 is significant to the history of pizza. Different legends vary on the specific details, but it is an accepted fact that in 1889 Queen Margherita of Italy  fell in love with Neapolitan pizza. If her name makes you think pizza, that is probably because the Margherita pizza is believed to have been named after her. While some feel that it is no coincidence that the red of the tomatoes, the green of the basil and the white of the mozzarella which unite to make this dish represent the colours of the Italian flag was in fact invented and offered as a tribute to Queen Margherita others feel that it was after Queen Margherita fell in love with this dish that it was named after her.

ORO 1889 draws on this history – ‘Oro’ means ‘gold’ in Italian and 1889 signifying this  very significant year in the history of  Neapolitan pizza. “It means the gold of Naples,” explains Nishan. Nishan, whose mother is Sri Lankan and father Italian, has a degree in Economics and a Masters in Business Administration. He worked in several jobs in Finance before deciding to move to Sri Lanka. When a friend from Naples suggested that he should start making pizza here, he decided to do so and opened ORO 1889 in 2014. Although sourcing ingredients is rather difficult, Nishan feels that the pizza he serves at ORO 1889 is as close to the pizza served in Naples as is humanly possible halfway around the world. “I think people should try this pizza- it’s a different experience,” he says.

Neapolitan pizza is known for its simple ingredients and specific process. The pizzas offered here are cooked at 485 degrees centigrade for just 90 seconds before they are ready to be served. Nishan feels that he has honed his recipes over the years. “You can find recipes for Neapolitan pizza on the internet, but it won’t work,” he says, explaining that the key to good Neapolitan pizza is the laborious process of making the dough and sauce with the correct ingredients and the correct process.

The pizza is cooked in a 2000 kg oven which is capable of reaching the required temperature. Lovingly named ‘The Don’, it was brought down from Naples and its arrival at the Odel premises required three walls to be broken just so it could sit at the bright red corner of Alexandra and Ward café and spit out pizzas every 90 seconds. Seasoned only with chilli oil made in-house with fresh Sri Lankan chillies and olive oil, Nishan aims to have the flavour of his high quality ingredients shine. His pizza sauce, uses only fresh San Marzano tomatoes and salt. “It’s only when the ingredients aren’t good that the sauce must have other ingredients in it,” he states firmly.

Chef Dharshan feels that chefs need not pander to the whims of the people when serving up good food. “Restaurants shouldn’t make food for a market. When you make good quality food, you will automatically get the right market,” he explains. He prides himself in using fresh ingredients with no additives or artificial flavours. “When people make tuna salad, they use canned tuna. Why should you use canned tuna when you have fresh tuna here? We use fresh tuna in our food,” he tells us. He has even made his own drink, named ‘Centella’, made of centella asiatica (more commonly known as gotu kola) and king coconut, lime and a secret ingredient which he tells us is a Sri Lankan vegetable. “The key was to mask the taste of gotu kola and you do not get that taste in the drink,” he says, adding that although he is certain of the drink’s appeal, he is still sometimes surprised that people order it.

Two interesting dishes he makes are the ‘Kade Paan French Toast’ and the ‘Rustic Burger’ – both use store bought, wood oven baked bread (kade paan) – sourced from a reputed Colombo bakery of course! “I think kade paan is an undervalued food” explains Dharshan. The French toast is a soft, decadent delight which has been elegantly topped with strawberries, whipped cream and palm sugar syrup. It’s unlikely that anyone would consider it to be unappetizing, although Dharshan feels that most people dismiss it before they have even tried it. “Everyone has an opinion, even though sometimes they do not know what they are talking about,” he sighs.

He feels that the same issue is present when people consider the pricing of his food. “It’s not going to be Rs. 500 per head but all people have to do is look at the menu that is there outside the restaurant. I think people can  eat a good meal for Rs. 2000 per head,” he says, agreeing that they even have the option of eating a few items which are more affordable such as the French toast, which is Rs. 500.

The Alexandra and Ward fashion café and cafe Nihonbashi is located at 5, Alexandra Place, Colombo 7 and is open from 12 noon to 10.30 p.m. daily.

Reservations can be made by calling 011-4718758.  The menu can be viewed on their instagram pages https://www.instagram.com/alexandraandward/ and https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/560774490774772/cafe-nihonbashi/ and facebook pages https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1569008886698656 and http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170611/

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