A Sri Lankan feast

Sri Lankan loaf at The Dorchester

One of London's smartest hotels provided an unlikely setting for some great home cooking – and what a home!

It was to be a booking for last Monday night, the night of the week when many restaurants are closed. It was to be for five, all of us at an age when being able to converse easily is almost as important as the quality of all that we are offered to eat and drink.

And then an unexpected email arrived. London’s Dorchester Hotel announced the opening of their rooftop restaurant with a series of pop-ups and an auspicious list of chefs: the Italian Francesco Mazzei until 12 June; from Monday 14 June the exciting Mexican chef Adriana Cavita (for which we have already made a reservation); as well as the promise of others to come.

But it was the first chef that most excited us. It was to be Mario Perera, The Dorchester’s executive chef, who was to be given free rein to cook the Sri Lankan food that he grew up with, dishes that have long delighted HRH and myself as well as bringing back happy memories of our one memorable trip there. Furthermore, all three of our guests had lived on the Indian subcontinent.

We booked and, although the preceding weekend was wet and blustery, and the forecast for the Monday night was not that different, it was something that all five of us were looking forward to.

But at 6.30 last Saturday evening I received a phone call. It was from somebody at The Dorchester who said unequivocally that the booking had been cancelled. The weather was the excuse given, although when I tried to find out more the line went dead, not just on the first call but on the subsequent one too.

This was followed immediately by an email explaining that their guests’ comfort was their priority and that no extra charges would be made to the credit card I had given. (I should hope not!) But I was angry. My first point was how could they know what the weather was going to be like 48 hours in advance? And secondly, surely a hotel as capacious as The Dorchester should be able to offer me an alternative rather than an outright cancellation?

Just as swiftly, I did something for the very first time in my professional career, something akin to stamping my foot. I passed the cancellation email on to the PR who had alerted me to The Dorchester’s rooftop pop-ups, Fern Thomson at Sauce Communications, and left it with her.

It took less than an hour for her to send me a holding email that promised some kind of solution and then early on Monday morning Thomson emailed me again with an offer that it would have been extremely silly of anyone to refuse: how about we swap our table on the potentially windswept rooftop for the Chef’s Table in The Dorchester’s kitchens? We immediately agreed.

As we walked up a still-eerily-quiet Park Lane from Hyde Park tube we recalled a time when the string of hotels in this area had been the epicentre of London’s food and drink scene. Jancis pointed out where the wine merchant Michael Druitt’s offices had once been. In the past, The Dorchester had seen many a wine-trade lunch and dinner under a string of talented executive chefs and their teams: Anton Mosimann, Henry Brosi and Willi Elsener.

We walked into the hotel and into what was a notably quiet Promenade Bar. The bar seemed unchanged. The staff were far more smartly dressed than the customers, of whom the majority seemed to be on their iPhones. We were seated, served an excellent cocktail (a mai tai in which rum was replaced by Sri Lankan arrack) and after our friends – Jancis’s cousins – had arrived we were led downstairs by a young sommelier whose accent I found extremely difficult to place. ‘I was born in Ukraine but I grew up in Italy’, explained Eugenio Egorov, pictured below discussing Rathfinny’s sparkling 2015 with Jancis.

Dorchester Wine Vault

Down the stairs, past the escalators that take the waiting staff carrying the food up to The Grill, round several bends, we finally arrived at the Wine Vault, lined with extremely expensive bottles, next to the Chef’s Table in its special glass box, the domain of executive chef Marco Perera.

Perera is an imposing figure who obviously enjoys talking. Having introduced himself, he began by telling us his story of a lifelong passion for cooking; of growing up Moratuwa, today a suburb of Colombo; of how he, of all his siblings, used to help his mother cook at home, and of how he came to London. ‘I always dreamt of coming to cook at The Dorchester. Having enrolled as a catering student, I was sent to London as part of a promotional team by the Sri Lankan government. And I have stayed here ever since’, he added with a smile.

Mario Perera, executive chef of The Dorchester

On the table, beautifully decorated with tropical flowers, was a large, smartly printed menu that listed all Perera’s dishes on one side, his selection menu on the other and a vegetarian menu at the bottom. Sensing that our eyes were beginning to glaze over with indecision, Perera intervened. ‘Would it be all right if I were to choose a few of my favourite dishes?’ he asked. We nodded in relieved agreement, sat back and looked forward to a feast that was very different from the food traditionally served in The Dorchester.

What ensued was a delicious Sri Lankan meal of shared dishes that was highlighted by the memories it evoked. After being served a little glass of the spiced, sweet ‘milk wine’ traditionally enjoyed in Sri Lankan homes, we began with seeni sambal pann, the lovely, multicoloured buttermilk loaf pictured at the top of this article with caramelised onion marmalade, and some banana-blossom croquettes that made for such a moreish combination that I suggested, ‘we could finish these and call for the bill’. Perera appeared and explained how a great deal of Sri Lankan cooking was based on ingredients found in individuals’ gardens on the island, the blossom of the banana tree being one such example.

Lobster kottu at The Dorchester

This was followed by some slightly less distinctive salt-marsh lamb rolls before we moved on to a succession of really good ‘large plates’, the highlight of which was blue lobster kottu, half a lobster (above) alongside a traditional stir-fry made of ribbons of roti with vegetables infused with a lobster bisque. Impressive too was Ammi’s (Mummy’s) chicken curry and a 1-kg côte de boeuf, of which we left more than half, that accompanied a curry sauce enlivened by jaggery, the traditional sweetener of Sri Lanka. Also impressive were the hen’s egg hoppers (below – the traditional Sri Lankan breakfast dish) and the coconut roti. With all these strong flavours, a rich, smooth, rounded red Côtes du Rhône 2015 from J L Chave stood up well (£65 out of a total bill of £434.34) and added to our overall enjoyment.

Sri Lankan hopper at The Dorchester

Desserts are in true Sri Lankan fashion very sweet. Best of all was a buffalo-curd parfait with coconut treacle and a chocolate pudding made from rich Valrhona chocolate with an ice cream made with Sri Lankan arrack.

We left The Dorchester and, yes, it was raining. But we also left with three conclusions. The first was that Perera is a highly talented practitioner of his native cooking. Secondly, that the pandemic could and will provide restaurants and hotels with additional new eating spaces. And finally, confirmation that a nag can yield results. Had the hotel simply cancelled our booking, we would never have realised quite how exciting Perera’s cooking can be.

Bookings for The Dorchester’s rooftop pop-ups here.