The first I hear of rare at Residence by Uga Escapes is that they serve a delicious sprat and seeni sambol ice cream.The promise of it is enough to lure us down to the Residence on a week night. Located in a gorgeous old mansion down Park Street, the boutique hotel is surrounded by a [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Seeni sambol ice cream! That’s how rare it gets


The first I hear of rare at Residence by Uga Escapes is that they serve a delicious sprat and seeni sambol ice cream.The promise of it is enough to lure us down to the Residence on a week night. Located in a gorgeous old mansion down Park Street, the boutique hotel is surrounded by a flurry of development – something that makes the quiet courtyard at its heart even more welcoming.

Managing trio: Chef Vichalya, Ashan Wijewickrema and Roshan Dylan. Pix by Nilan Maligaspe

Rare is set to have a busy night, but Chef Vichalya Fernando comes out to give us a small introduction to his menu. A big man, his tattoos testify to his passion for food – a fork and a knife topped by a chef’s hat adorn his left forearm. Already at the table are General Manager Roshan Dylan, and Marketing Manager AshanWijewickrema.

Dylan is the restaurant’s most eloquent advocate. With a long history in F&B, including stints at The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo and the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, Dylan has made it a point to keep in touch with international trends. Pointing to the line that adorns the top of their menu, Dylan says the Residence serves up “international cuisine with an emphasis on Sri Lankan ingredients.”

The latter are sourced in part from the hotel chain’s own organic farms in the East Coast and Cultural Triangle. Chef Fernando says their freshness and variety have given him licence to experiment and the result is an ingenious, intelligent menu that reinvents classic dishes through a uniquely Sri Lankan flavour palette.

The menu is deliberately simple, pushing into sharp focus the eccentric pairings that anchor each dish. On the starter menu, a tender curl of octopus tentacle, cooked so it yields to your fork with only the lightest resistance, is paired with lychees soaked in Campari; a pair of delicate scallops are immersed in a pale green soup of drumstick leaves.

Inventive vegetarian mains include a mung dhal wellington served with a bright beetroot puree and wild garlic pannacotta among several others but carnivores will rejoice in Chef Fernando’s skill with meats. At Dylan’s recommendation, we try the lamb, slow cooked in the French style of sous-vide until incredibly tender, then topped with fresh kohila leaves and served with a smoked sweet potato mash, polos seeds and a deliciously sweet onion jam.

The menu changes frequently and not just between lunch and dinner – come here around noon for a selection of lunch deals and one of the most beautifully presented Bento boxes in the city or at high tea for a delicate, sophisticated assortment of savoury snacks and sweet pastries. Chef Fernando also enjoys experimenting with new ingredients so that diners are never quite bored.

Remember to save some room for dessert – drop in for the ice cream if for nothing else. Made fresh on the premises, you’re guaranteed a luxuriantly smooth, creamy base. There are over ten flavours, all of which manage to be anything but mundane – from the sprat and seeni sambol (a must try) to black pepper with green olives, passion fruit with chilli, jaggery with sesame seeds and a straight up tamarind. There’s also an assortment of tarts and cakes – I make note of the billin tart served with kithulpani and yoghurt for another visit.

Dylan wanted their carefully curated menu to reflect not just an interest in eating local but also the abundance of wonderful local ingredients. Most importantly it was about showcasing the incredible and largely untapped versatility of local foods. Take for instance the humble koss atta or jak fruit seed. At rare, it’s used as a substitute for starch and nuts – creamed into a delicate kalu pol soup, boiled and sliced thinly as a garnish on a salad, and crumbled into the base of the cheesecake.

The restaurant certainly succeeds in that final aspect, providing an experience that modern gourmands (who require food to be not just delicious but exciting) will pay well for. If there are drawbacks it’s these – firstly, eating here requires a streak of adventurousness that not all diners can be bothered to cultivate. Not all experiments are an unqualified success – the gnocchi I tried on a previous visit, while delicious, didn’t melt in the mouth as my favourite versions of that dish do, and the passion fruit ice cream had too liberal a sprinkling of chilli for my taste.

Portions are small, deliberately so, allowing you to eat a three course meal comfortably, but this can also mean a bill that makes this a place you’re likely to opt for only on that special night out. Before taxes, starters range from Rs.700 – Rs.1,200, mains from Rs.1,100 to Rs.4,400 and desserts from Rs.550 to Rs.700. The lunch and high tea deals with prices that range from 1,100 – 1,500 promise to be much easier on your wallet.

It’s worth noting that you’re also paying for the (great) service. Waiters typically have first-hand experience of every dish on the menu and can offer informed recommendations. Dylan wants them to be so attentive that they make note of whether you favour your left or right hand, so they can lay out your cutlery appropriately.

All things considered though, rare really is that rarest of things – combining atmosphere, service and a new kind of Sri Lankan cuisine, this is a genuinely inventive restaurant that promises to deliver deliciously new experiences with every visit.

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