22 October 2021: Kolamba - Sri-eks of delight
Following a successful work trip to Tooting's Lahore Karahi, it was a meal closer to the office this time around. There was also a substantial lineup change with many absentees for various reasons: Antonio - childcare, Alice - a colleague no more (new company, not dead), Guy - illness, Ellie - 'better' plans, and Mollie - careless diary mismanagement.
Present, and automatically shooting to the top of the more reliable (and therefore better) colleagues list were Jack E, Tegan and Sophie.
After a few jars in the Spice of Life, we strolled across Soho to the ever lively Kingly Street, past Dishoom, and to our destination: Kolamba.
Kolamba is a fairly recent addition to Soho and joins the small but growing number of Sri Lankan restaurants in London. It's named after the Sinhalese version of Columbo, the Sri Lankan capital on the river Kelani, and means ford or harbour. The restaurant Kolamba, is found on the western shores of Soho, but nevertheless provides safe harbour for any diner looking for a cosier corner in this busy locale.
You could be forgiven for walking past as neighbouring crowds at the Ain't Nothin But The Blues bar obscure the narrow grey shop front, but you'd be missing out if you did. A step inside reveals a simple yet stylish surround that maximizes the small interior without feeling overcrowded. This is helped by a real welcoming warmth that emanates from the woody browns of the furnishings and the soft yellow glow of the wicker-style lanterns above. Further yellows and greens from the tasteful wall art and choice foliage add to the intimate feel, with an open view in to the kitchen at the back completing the elegant ensemble.
With an excellent first impression, it's 9/10 for Venue.
Starters and sides
Aunty Mo's 'Chatti' Roast
String Hoppers with Kiri Hodhi and Pol Sambol
The dishes here are generally split into starters, mains and sides, but all were served together. From the 'short eats', starter menu we chose the pappadums, Aunty Mo's 'Chatti' Roast and paniyaram and then added to these with pol roti and string hoppers from the 'rice and breads'.
In line with the modern trend to serve them in any way but uniformly round, the pappadums came in long strips served like big, ribbon-y breadsticks. The accompanying chutney was unique too with a chunky blend of tamarind, mango, and chilli building a nice heat. Also spicy was the pol sambol that came with the string hoppers and roti. Generously described as a salad on the menu this pureed chilli, coconut and onion blend is a standard accompaniment to Sri Lankan and South Indian dishes, with the sides here being no exception.
String hoppers are a vermicelli style rice noodle often served with coconut crumb, sambol and in this case, kiri hodhi - a cocunut milk based gravy. They provided a nice alternative to rice for the curries that followed, but the Aunty Mo's 'Chatti' Roast was a stand alone string hopper based dish in it's own right. I don't know who Aunty Mo is but if she's looking for a nephew to adopt, then sign me up. This was my favourite dish on account of the melt-in-the-mouth, buttery beef. If trying this then bring your passport as you'll be heading to flavour country...and save a seat for Sue-Perb!
Unlike the string hoppers, the paniyaram and pol roti were new to me. The paniyaram were fermented rice flour batter balls reminiscent of South Indian vada and came with a side of green chilli chutney. Sat under them were a dusting of crunchy lentils, but were otherwise the doughy balls were rather plain and dry on their own. The pol roti could also fall into this category.
Whilst I've had roti before the term is clearly flexible, with this particular flatbread offering being quite thick with an almost Irish soda bread texture. However, the diced coconut, onion and green chilli within this bread would be anathema to the Irish, and, unlike soda bread, this proved a perfect vehicle for soaking up leftover curry sauce and excess sambol.
All told, it was a strong showing for starters and sides with Aunty Mo especially delivering the goods. Likewise, the cocktails we sampled were equally special, with the spice infused blend of liquors and mixers leaving a lasting impression.
Vaira's Jaggery Beef
Jaffna Mutton Poriyal
Black Pepper Prawn Fry
Kumar's Pineapple and Aubergine
Young Jackfruit (Polos) Curry
From the main dishes we chose three meat and two veg options. The most visually arresting were the black pepper prawn fry, a crescent of five king prawns fried in crushed black pepper, mixed spices and green chilli. Whilst a little fiddly to peel and eat, the effort was worth it for the meat within and, in any case, they weren't as messy as Sophie who decided to use her lap as a plate for much of the meal; clumsy.
The other four dishes were more akin to curries. The similar appearance of the Jaffna mutton poriyal and Vaira's jaggery beef had us a little mixed up as to which was which but both tasted great. In the end the green chillis helped distinguish the poriyal - a quick, dry stir fry - with deliciously succulent goat shoulder, while the sweetness of the jaggery identifed the beef. The meat in both was generous, succulent, and full of flavour and both proved a hit.
Kumar's pineapple and aubergine was also full of savour, but the jackfruit curry was a little underwhelming. I don't know who all these people are but, like Aunty Mo, Kumar and Vaira can come for dinner anytime. The pineapple and aubergine added both colour and a fragrance to proceedings with the sweetness of the fruit and onion, tomato and cardamom
garnishing. The jackfruit was disappointing on account of it's lack of any stand out flavour. It had the inimitable, coconut, cinnamon, cumin and mustard seed base of typical Sri Lankan curries but I felt it needed something more to elevate it beyond the 'dark, bold' notes described on the menu.
As a collective, and eaten alongside the sides and starters, these dishes proved a veritable feast for all the senses. With eleven dishes between four we were comfortable satiated without overdoing it. It's therefore a high 8/10 for mains.
The food came quickly and was served without fuss, although we had ordered rice, but it never arrived. We didn't miss it though and we were given plenty of time to enjoy our drinks at the meal's conclusion. The only time eyebrows were raised was when the kopi coca (espresso martini) cocktail was offered sans coffee liquor (!) on account of a shortage. Not to be shortchanged the girls opted for another cocktail, but otherwise we were perfectly content with the service.
Value for money
Whilst not the cheapest, with the prawns topping out at £15.90, this isn't your run of the mill curry house. Right off the bat you're paying a Soho premium which has automatically gone up since the pandemic. On top of this, eating Sri Lankan food at all is a relatively unique experience. However, the quality of the restaurant and dishes add up to justify the price which came to around £45 a head with wine and cocktails. I'm sure more economy could be found with larger groups, but this didn't feel excessive for what was a great meal and a memorable night.
I've managed to get to the end of the review without mentioning Hoppers and Kolamba is very much in the mold of its esteemed Sri Lankan rival. Both are equally high scoring exemplifying the sensational experience of eating Sri Lankan food, a cuisines that offers something a little different to even South Indian fare. Indeed it would be hard to separate the two competitors, and only the friendliness of the service at Hoppers tips it ahead of Kolmaba on our leaderboard, and the food may well be better here.
In sum, I can't recommend this place enough, and my fellow diners shared this sentiment. In fact they were more generous in their assessment with a whopping 10/10 review. Being the ratings miser I am, it's not quite that high from me, but 40/50 is pretty much the equivalent for this blog - Kolamba is not to be missed.
Address: 21 Kingly St, Carnaby, London W1B 5QA
Cuisine: Sri Lankan
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: Superb Sri Lankan restaurant to rival Hoppers