By Irfan Husain
Colombo, January 2 (Dawn): With growing investments from Beijing in Sri Lanka, there are now a large number of Chinese businessmen, engineers and tourists in Colombo. Half of them seemed to have been in the Chinese restaurant ‘88’ when we took a Sri Lankan couple there recently. It’s always a good sign to see lots of Chinese diners in one of the restaurants, because it gives the establishment a stamp of authenticity.
However, you can’t have too much of a good thing, as the Chinese tend to be loud and raucous when they are together in groups.
However, the food made up for the ambiance. Despite the noise and the air of frantic activity, we had a great meal. The hot and sour soup was especially good, with great depth of flavor; the spicing was well-balanced, and the soup contained lots of tofu.
A quick confession: I was very tempted by the shark fin soup on offer, but the thought of the sharks being used only for their fins, and then to be thrown back into the sea to die, has put me off the dish, even though I used to love it.
While 88 is very much a Chinese restaurant, it offers a range of Far Eastern dishes, including Indonesian, Thai and Malay. We stuck to the Chinese cuisine, however, and had no reason to regret our choice.
We were staying in a small flat in central Colombo that we hired on Airbnb. To our dismay, when we walked in, we discovered that the flat had no kitchen and, as we never use a microwave oven to cook with, we are eating out a lot. Lunch at Noodles, a restaurant in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, was excellent, even though the place was full of noisy children brought there for a Sunday treat by doting parents. Vietnamese paper rolls and Japanese dumplings were followed by a rich roast duck soup with rice noodles that had slices of duck simmered in chicken stock and leeks.
With Christmas around the corner, the city is lit up and decorated. The lighting at city hall is particularly eye-catching, and a firework display the other night was spectacular. Even though the vast majority of the Colombo population is Buddhist, they celebrate Christmas with a lot of enthusiasm, with hotel lobbies and shopping malls decorated with lights and silver stars. In Karachi, we used to have a similar atmosphere until the mullahs gate-crashed the party.
The hottest new restaurant in Colombo is L’Epicure where the cooking is at a whole different level. When we asked the manager to convey our compliments to the chef, he replied: “You are looking at him.” Later, it emerged that after many years abroad running restaurants, he had returned to Sri Lanka to open this new establishment. L’Epicure is stylish, with excellent service and great food. So if you are visiting Colombo, this is a place not to miss as there’s nothing like this in Pakistan.
For nearly 20 years, we have been eating at Colombo’s most iconic restaurant, the Café at Paradise Road. This rambling space used to house Geoffery Bawa’s architectural office until nearly the end of his life. My oxtail soup was unctuous and had lots of depth of flavour. My main course of spaghetti with squid ink was perfectly cooked, and the coconut ice cream was creamy and rich.
Another old standby is our favorite Japanese restaurant, the Nihonbashi. The seafood is always fresh, and the presentation spectacular. The executive chef, Dharshan Munidasa, is half-Japanese, and a few years ago, he set up what is perhaps Colombo’s most popular restaurant, the Ministry of Crab. His partners are the legendary Sri Lankan cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane. It is impossible to get a table without a reservation made days in advance. It now offers five different time slots for dinner, and still remains constantly full. But having eaten there a couple of times, I can say that it’s worth the wait.