Nick eats at home. For a change.
I have a confession to make. I did not pay for this particular delivery meal from Kolamba, a small Sri Lankan restaurant whose owners had the very bad luck of opening the restaurant of their dreams in October 2019.
Nor was this the first time that I have been ‘comped’ a meal in a restaurant. Restaurateurs, chefs, those people who work in restaurants tend to be generous folk and we have been around a long, long time, so many have come to recognise either my face or my name and certainly those of my wife. If and when I am writing for the Financial Times, I always insist on paying for everything, of course.
But this was certainly the very first time since I first started reviewing restaurants in 1989 that I have ever reviewed a restaurant without crossing its front door. I do at least know where Kolamba is – on Kingly Street, parallel to Carnaby Street close to Oxford Circus. I also know that the restaurant is small, friendly and family-owned, by husband and wife Eroshan and Aushi Meewella.
Then last week I received an email from Lois Brown of Gemma Bell & Company, specialist hospitality publicists, asking me whether I would like to try a delivery of Sri Lankan food from Kolamba. I thought it best to ask the conscience of the company, HRH, and did so in an email sent at 9.45 am. Less than a minute later the reply came back: ‘You bet’.
This immediate response was doubtless inspired by very happy memories from our trip to Sri Lanka in 2011. The heat, the colours, the smells and all the happy associations of that trip seem to have been accentuated by the combination of this never-ending winter and this never-ending lockdown.
And oh, the food! Glorious breakfasts, lovely fish and curries for lunch and dinner, and delicious sweetmeats all the time. All served with a smile. None larger than that of the chef at the Galle Face hotel in Colombo in charge of the hoppers stand, whose brother, he told me proudly, now lives in Stockport, Cheshire. The question we constantly asked ourselves was, how could so many seemingly happy people bear such a prolonged civil war for such a long time?
If that is how I feel about Sri Lanka after a single visit, I wondered about the feelings of so many who had grown up in this paradise of an island but who had decided for whatever reason to move to the UK. I decided to find out. Such were Eroshan and Aushi’s feelings – and ultimately their reasons for opening Kolamba.
Eroshan and Aushi were apparently introduced by mutual friends, married and then Eroshan went into property (Whitebox London) where Aushi eventually joined him as director of design. They frequently returned to their homeland where she still has family, leading on their return to a familiar refrain: ‘Why can we not get authentic Sri Lankan food in the UK?’ (This was before the very successful Hoppers restaurants opened in London, I must add.) To which Aushi replied apparently, ‘If you believe in this and want to do it, go for it – don’t live with regret’. It is so often a partner’s vital support that plays an important role in the success of any restaurant.
Kolamba was a team effort. Eroshan’s property knowledge led them to their site – formerly home to office workers, shoppers and tourists. Aushi’s design expertise led to very clear and distinctive branding and attention to detail, ingredients that carry through on to all the packaging of the food they now send out and what it is wrapped in. This includes a totally recyclable bag containing 100% pure sheep’s wool that is compostable and biodegradable (www.woolcool.com). And for professional assistance in establishing the restaurant they sought the expertise of a successful Sri Lankan-born chef.
During the second UK lockdown in November 2020 the Meewellas presciently divined that they would have to build on home deliveries as a longer-term fixture for any restaurant, particularly one specialising in a specific cuisine such as Sri Lankan. As Eroshan explained, ‘We saw this as an opportunity to take Sri Lankan food across the country and to bring Kolamba to regions far beyond Soho’. This is what is now available across the UK with deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays from kolambahome.co.uk.
The food, I have to say, I found as elegant as the packaging and it required very little input from me. Just cut open the bags, tip them into a series of welcoming pots and stir conscientiously for about 10 minutes. And while that is happening there is one major advantage over less spicy food and that is that, as the pans heat up, the amalgamation of all the spices and herbs inherent in Sri Lankan food fill the kitchen – and linger for far longer than while you are enjoying the food. (Which is a plus point for those with happy memories of the island.)
The dish I enjoyed the most was a mutton curry, a meat that I believe benefits from slow cooking as well as being enhanced by the magic of these spices. Then there was a beetroot curry; an unusual but delicious cashew-nut and pea curry; rice, enhanced by additions from a pot of aromatic spices; and a stunning red-lentil dahl. I loved the coconut roti too, which crisped up nicely after a couple of minutes in a small frying pan. (Coconut is a key Sri Lankan ingredient.)
What was delivered fed the two of us over the weekend and we finished on Monday evening with certain pots still left. More spices for cooking rice; some left-over seeni sambol, an onion chutney; and a considerable amount of pol sambol, a fiery combination of grated coconut, onions, red chilis (a lot – you have been warned) and a squirt of lime juice.
Kolamba’s food is distinctive, fiery and great fun. Trying to dampen the heat in your mouth with water will not work but, counterintuitively, a glass of red wine is just the job. We ate our Sri Lankan suppers with a Le Logis de la Bouchardière 2019 Chinon from Serge & Bruno Sourdais; a Chiroubles 2019 from Domaine de la Grosse Pierre; and a Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2018 from M Chapoutier, Friday’s wine of the week.