But it’s an island-sized disappointment
London’s restauranteurs love a good trend bandwagon to jump upon, whether it’s gua bao or banh mi. So it’s something of a surprise that it’s taken this long for another Sri Lankan restaurant to open up in zone 1 following the runaway success of Hoppers, both the original in Soho and its sequel in Marylebone. Kolamba, located on Soho’s Kingly Street, smells right if nothing else. The strategic wafting of incense, or at least something very much like it, was enough to transport Happy Buddha back in time to his Sri Lankan childhood. By pure happenstance, we bumped into Happy Buddha’s cousin, who also grew up in Sri Lanka, on the gold-paved streets of Soho. He had eaten at Kolamba immediately before us and his verdict was not encouraging: ‘there’s too much chat from the owner and they don’t serve mutton rolls.’
Despite these words of warning, we both ploughed head-on into Kolamba’s menu with the help of Porn Master, Veal Smasher and The Lensman. Our dinner started off well with sprightly, zingy and sinewy strands of beef served atop moreish miniature string hoppers.
Crisp, tightly crumbed spherical shells came filled with a light yet meaty mince of pilchards. Although pleasing, they didn’t have quite the same fishy punch as a good Malaysian-style sardine puff.
At this point, things started going a bit wobbly. Although crisp on the outside, the jackfruit filling of the adorable little mini patties was even more of a blank slate than a workaholic’s social life. ‘Hot butter’ cuttlefish had the smell and taste of a takeaway Chinese sweet and sour dish. Neither Happy Buddha nor I were enamoured with it. The cuttlefish was too soft for my liking, while both of us found the simplistic flavour and smell profile to be deeply uninteresting.
The best of the meat curries was most definitely the beef. Every inch of the slow-cooked beef short rib was tender, sinewy and unctuous. But it had been steeped in such an excessive amount of jaggery, that its almost over-the-top sweetness drowned out whatever spices had also been used in the preparation.
Firm and meaty lobster-like chunks of monkfish came in a yellow curry sauce that tasted vaguely of turmeric. Formulating a curry that’s flavoursome without overwhelming the chosen protein is difficult, but there has to be a better outcome than simply watering down the flavours to this debased level.
The chicken and pork curries were even blander. There was little evidence of the promised ‘sharp tangy tamarind’ in the generically creamy sauce accompanying the chicken, while the sauce covering the pork was so timid as to be utterly forgettable. While tender, the meats had little else to say for themselves.
Relatively firm prawns, with the shells largely pre-removed, were lightly peppery and piquant. While decent enough, ‘relatively’ and ‘lightly’ are not qualities that make a dish stick in the memory. At least, not for the right reasons.
Tenderised cashews in a sharp and lightly peppery sauce was, on balance, the best of the vegan-friendly curries we tried. It was followed by a curry of red split lentils which were creamily moreish – a more nuanced and complex flavour would’ve helped it triumph over its cashew stablemate.
The vegan side was let down by the jackfruit curry. The promised ‘dark, boldly flavoured curry’ was anything but, its wan, anaemic timidity was interchangeable with the sauces of the pork and chicken curries. While the tenderised jackfruit was inoffensive enough in its slippery tautness which bordered on waxiness, I’m increasingly perplexed by the culinary personality cult surrounding this innocuous fruit.
Hoppers, both plain and topped with a just-set fried egg, weren’t as large as the ones at the JKS restaurants. They were still perfectly serviceable as either, depending on your preferred style, edible bowls or big scoops for other food. Lightly crisp near the top, delicately spongy at the bottom and moreish throughout.
String hoppers were light yet eminently moreish, in spite of the accompanying relishes and sauces which were pedestrian in their tameness. Roti were surprisingly thick with crisp crusts and a deep, fluffy hinterland. The best of the sambols and condiments had to be the heap of tangy sweet onions with a tangy tamarind follow-through and a fiery finish.
There are just four desserts at Kolamba, none of which were seductive enough to get my heart racing. Kiri Pani turned out to be a firm yoghurt, somewhat similar in effect to panna cotta, topped with a spoonful of lightly sweet and tangy treacle. The same treacle, but not nearly enough of it, came drizzled over a milk hopper which turned out to be barely any different than its savoury counterparts.
Grilled pineapple wedges had a boozy tang to them. The vanilla ice cream on the side was not only sigh inducingly generic, it was too crunchy with one too many errant ice crystals. Sorbets of lime and coconut were far smoother than the vanilla ice cream, but with flavours barely any bolder.
Drinks were similarly underwhelming. An iced tea had all the watered-down charm of a bottle of Lipton’s, while Happy Buddha’s Sri Lankan rum iced coffee had vanishingly little rum, coffee or condensed milk. His ‘1948’ cocktail was essentially an Old Fashioned but with arrack coconut brandy taking the place of whiskey. With the addition of nothing more than water and salt, he considered it unjustifiably overpriced at £9.
The cooking at Kolamba is far from inedibly bad, but it does have a problem almost as alarming – it’s strikingly inoffensive and dull. The spicing and heat had been toned down so much – almost as if to avoid offending anyone’s delicate, lily-livered sensibilities – that many of the dishes had become apologetic shadows of themselves. As a result, the overall experience at Kolamba was only marginally less mundane than eating out at a high street curry house. Although the food at Hoppers isn’t without issues of its own, the cooking there – at its best – delivers spiced flavour and warmth that is unmistakably characterful. When held up to that standard, or any other worth mentioning, Kolamba is simply third-rate. The reputation of Sri Lankan food in London, and your stomach, deserve better.
What to order: Red split lentils curry; cashew nut fry; possibly the beef short rib curry and the monkfish curry
What to skip: Pork curry; chicken curry
Address: 21 Kingly Street, Soho, London W1B 5QA
Phone: 020 3815 4201
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.30 – 22.30. Saturday-Sunday noon-22.30. Closed Monday.
Reservations: essential on and around weekends; otherwise highly recommended
Average cost for one person including soft drinks when shared between five: £46 approx.