The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Colombo’s best kept secrets


Feast Jaffna Food Festival (GOH):

Last year’s one-off, by popular demand returned this year “From Jaffna with Love.”
And the chefs, they come from Jaffna. Really. GOH’s Executive Chef Withana discloses, “I sourced them through VIP contacts in Jaffna.” But who, Chef smiles mischievously, “Top secret.” Confirming that the culinary quartet Chef Razan headed aren’t Colombo cooks (as at certain long-sustained annual Jaffna food fests), they delightfully speak no English. Chef Withana directs them in impeccable Tamil.

It would be presumptuous of me, never having visited Jaffna, to certify the authenticity of GOH’s exertions. However, the food not just tastes but looks different. Vadais simmering before you haven’t their equal in Colombo (save at Suryas): ulundu vadais, crisp outside, soft-hearted inside and crunchy masala vadai clustered with flavoursome aniseed, whole coriander and chilli, come with perhaps the two best “red” and “green” chutneys to be had in Colombo. The vadais themselves as possibly oil-devoid suggest clever technique. But calories don’t bother guests mounding plates with vadais whilst others juggle several as they peer into the buffet. Thank God the chefs themselves are lean! Evidencing that the cuisine will mercifully curtail oil and sugar.

Chef Withana tosses up thosai, uniquely of unadulterated urud lentils with the “masala” (onion, cumin, curry leaves) infused directly into the batter. Kottu clatters on, but the appam counter is aswirl with those clamouring for “paal appam.”

The high-up Harbour Room’s view might be Colombo’s most spectacular. Alas, the even more spectacular cuisine leaves little opportunity to feast the eye- Curries vehemently establish distinction. Unlike apocryphal “Jaffna” curries at other Jaffna food fests, these aren’t awash in coconut milk. As Chef Withana explains curries are thickened, and so wondrously, only with tomato, onions and curry powder prepared in Jaffna, a group of elegant ladies enclose me, enquiring excitedly, “Are you from the Press?” They urge, “PLEASE give them a good review as this is genuine Jaffna food.”

Casa Colombo’s chic new Za Za bar

The crispiest hoppers at Hilton’s Curry Leaf

One Jaffna-Tamil lady is in raptures that the “thosai, as opposed to those fine South Indian dosas, are spongy and homely like my mother made them.” She flits between asking me, “Where in Colombo do you find this crab curry and dry sprats and who in Colombo has heard of kool- it’s a Jaffna seafood bouillabaisse, you know,” and asking Chef why chicken or was it the mutton or cuttle fish hadn’t more tamarind. I, no authority on Jaffna cuisine (although one delects more South Indian influences than South Lankan), adjudge irreproachable the sambar, dhal, bhindi, brinjal and that unforgettable potato curry.

After which I’m left little room for Jaffna mango and incredible cashew-clawed pol-kitul cakes, kesari, payasam, semolina�. But the re-assuring sight of those skinny chefs encourages countless excursions to the desserts. Oh well, the desserts are virtually sugar-free�

If GOH is no glamour icon, its clandestine culinary competence secretly lures high society. If silk-shawled, gilded guests evince gathered is the cream of Colombo’s Jaffna Tamil community then emerging after dinner you find the hotel garlanded in the poshest cars in town.
Missed Festival 2012? This year’s resounding success ensures, GOH assures, their piquant passion for “From Jaffna with Love” will be a life-long affair. Forget the love, just give me those lentil-based lovelies.

Chef Selliah (Curry Leaf):

The best stories are those unsought. When an evening’s plans unravel, I find myself at Curry Leaf. Last year I thought the food had descended in touristy doom, and it couldn’t but as barrages of tourists inundated what must be Colombo’s most tourist-infested restaurant.
Now, kadala, cooked just right, furiously chillied, as it ought to be, intimates Curry Leaf has turned a new leaf. I next remark salads of ethnic veggies exhibit a refreshing exoticism, string-hoppers are delicate, curries, sambols, melums look fiery-breathed, and are controlled on oil and salt.

Garden relaxation at Havelock Bungalow

After a stupendous meal I query of young new manager Milanga, “Who’s the chef on duty today?” Milanga informs it’s Chef Selliah, winking merrily, “When the food’s spicy you feel like eating, right?” Indeed, agree 25 youngsters celebrating a friend’s 18th birthday. Thought Lankan-cuisine restaurants not hip enough for youthful bashes? Well, Curry Leaf seems the flavour in fashion, nowadays swarming with locals. Always a good sign.

Returning a week later I inform Chef Selliah I’d like to write about him. He’s in bewilderment: he has been at Colombo Hilton for 22 years and nobody has ever featured him. I contend he’s amongst Colombo’s top two exponents of Lankan cuisine. His expression betrays, “The girl’s surely demented.”

So, back to Curry Leaf. Chef Selliah soon tapestries my table with a multitude. Besides splendid salads already on the buffet like firm ladies fingers, sweet-sour brinjals, snake gourd, beetroot, spiced fruit, he presents “al dente” yam with but a smattering of coconut, lightly-fried lotus, bitter gourd etc.

Then come tangy tomato curry, lavish cashew-brinjal and spinach dhal. Whilst on the buffet are stunner drumsticks-fenugreek (unprecedented in my 5-Star experiences), kos, ambarella, pumpkin, thibbana batu, bottle-gourd pickle… Curry Leaf is renowned for its seafood market. But Sous-Chef Selliah has sous-reptitiously infiltrated intriguing indigenous veggies into the buffet.

Casa Colombo’s chic new Za Za bar

Another secret: if legendary hopper-specialist Ravi recently retired, his replacement makes hoppers crisper than a Russian winter (if there’s a crisper hopper in all Lanka, tell me). And new boy Isuru rolls rotis matchlessly as Chef Selliah, scuttling around energetically, reveals he simply recreates his mother’s and wife’s recipes. All so delicious one doesn’t simply sample, one perforce engorges.
That night I perhaps consumed more than I have all year. But shhh�.

Drink Bar-Tea-nder (Casa Colombo):

The glass-encased gardened bar just launched. Did you know, secre-tea-vely, it’s a tea bar by day. A snazzy new high tea inaugurates imminently, its composition a secret. But current appe-tea-ser: nine teas, smartly jarred, twirl into teatering citrus-rummed tea cocktails. If Casa customises breakfast at midnight then, ask nicely, and Chef Kareem chills his extraordinary home-roasted masala chai that mixologist Alex whiskey-whips. High tea redefined!

Dish Lamprais (Latitude):

Colombo’s only 24/7 5-Star lamprais, soon Colombo’s only 5-Star vegetarian lamprais. “People are becoming health-conscious,” F&B Manager Mr Jesmin explains. Incidentally, Latitude’s lamprais featured on international news Channel NDTV. News to me�

Space Garden (Havelock Pl Bungalow):

Heady verdure swoons into an enchanted secret garden amidst colonial charm. “People call our prices ridiculously high,” confesses owner Shamala. That’s no secret. Nor that slumps of pasta and risotto sit in a cheese/cream sludge. Notwithstanding, homemade ice creams WOW. Coffee-arrack is knock-out. The big secret: must-do new avocado ice cream, fresh, full, fine, less sweet than their ratatouille.

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