A grand old colonial bungalow in the centre of Colombo houses what must soon become one of Sri Lanka’s hippest restaurants. Rare at Residence, part of Residence by Uga, is one of the newer elegant dining eateries in the city, and the team here is doing things with food that will elevate the corners of the mouths of even the most jaded gourmets.
Local ingredients are treasured and the chefs go to great effort to source produce that is so steeped in history that some of the younger culture might not even be aware of them. The kitchen crew believes that by honouring diverse native ingredients, the rich culinary heritage of the country will live on. International cooking techniques, which focus on gentle preparation methods and respect for each component’s discrete flavour, showcase much potential for a fine dining experience that could potentially have people traveling to Sri Lanka solely to partake.
But… many great stories begin in the bar, so that’s where we start.
Meeting our gracious host, Ashan, we’re informed that local fruits, ambaralla and veralu (local olive), are used to make Residence by Uga’s signature cocktails. Veralu (900) combines its namesake shaken with vodka, green apple and lemon juice, in a conical glass. Memories of my grandma come flooding back with the contrast of the salt rim against the crisp apple – she used to sprinkle salt on granny smiths (much to my own mother’s annoyance, but my childhood delight), demonstrating a positive launch. Raw Mango (900) features blended gin, green mango, ambaralla, and lemon juice in a whisky snifter, proving a refreshing combo. And, brandy provides the base of the Wood Apple (900), which is mixed with fruit and mint and poured in a margarita glass. The distinctive taste of brandy comes to the forefront evoking resemblance to a Brandy Alexander, but with a cooler edge. Overall, we’re impressed with the cocktails – not a hint of sugar syrup, no soft drink top ups, just alcohol and natural fruits – yums up!
“Uga Escapes believe in giving experiences of a lifetime and an essential part of that is the food element,” says Ashan with an obvious belief in the property’s philosophy. Hubby notes that the cocktails feel ‘healthy’ (a good thing in hubby’s mind) with the simplicity of raw fruits and liquor. Ashan quickly jumps in unapologetically saying that the restaurant is not healthy, “we want you to indulge.” And so we continue…
A mouthful of fruit finishing with oak is found in the Las Moras Chardonnay from Argentina (950), which hubby chooses as his grape of choice to accompany the meal. The fresh acidity of my White Rhino Chenin Blanc from South Africa (850) pairs well with our seafood selections. Hints of guava and passionfruit linger in the mouth and the delicate prolonged ending goes well with food, but also makes easy drinking on its own.
A tray of warm breads baked in house is placed along with the wine. The aromas are saliva inducing, and although we try hard to resist, I succumb to the temptation to try something new. Sesame wholewheat, rye polenta, curry leaf, and roasted tomato breads are partnered with butter dusted with paprika.
A roll of Squid (850) infused with arrack is presented on a long black slate platter. The marinade of onion, garlic and celery is still visible on top, and “the squid is best eaten warm,” hubby pesters as the camera eats first. Local pala, or mukunuwenna greens and red bell pepper coulis give colour to the dish. Delicious.
Vegetable Patties (700) feature a trio of small balls: polos (young jackfruit), sweet potato, and pumpkin rounds, are crowned with a green curry sauce made with spinach, basil and mint. A stripe of beetroot purée underneath contributes vibrancy and we condone them a tasty vegetarian selection.
Beef Tenderloin (1200) has hubby in moans of praise. Paper-thin slices of beef mirror Italian carpaccio in a graceful fan across the plate. Smoked sea salt and sesame oil season leaves that resemble rucola, but are grown locally: gotukala (centala) and mukunuwenna. A dot of porcini mushroom purée, aged balsamic and a drizzle of green pesto oil each donate their own detail in taste and adornment.
Perfectly cooked Octopus (850) is presented as a beautiful trio of legs on a mash of yellow bell pepper and carrot. Green wedges of avocado, Campari soaked lychee and tiny dots of balsamic reduction make for a pretty composition both for the eye and the tongue.
Our host and chef have difficulty recommending just one soup to try as we suggest, so we end up with a trio of the most popular choices on the menu. Mutton (850) soup features a pumpkin curry base infused with arrack, with the meat as the garnish. It’s wonderfully thick and satisfying. Lemongrass (550) is roasted with tomato to provide a hearty soup with the familiar taste of Europe, but a slight intrigue of the exotic with a lemongrass underlay. Scallop (950) ends up being our favourite with the local vegetable, “drumstick” leaf (not chicken but leaves of the murunga plant), providing the curry base and supporting the seafood garnish. The soup enters the mouth creamy and departs with a sharper note – we like this amusement and keep scooping ‘til game over.
My vegetarian picking is Innalla (1100). Local yam is layered with cream to form a delicious tower with a velvety interior encased in crispy walls. Hubby’s not so fond of the stickier outer layer, but it reminds me of paella (or claypot rice) and scraping the edges of the dish to get the bits that have been caramelised and hence the richest of the grains. A legume red curry and bitter gourd salad seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil, tomato and grated coconut balance out the account with bitter, creamy, salty and sweet.
Kalu Pol (3800), or shoe lobster, is barely recognizable in the salty black rub that coats its entirety. Roasted coconut resembles a dry risotto base and thick slices of roasted bread cushions it all. Powerful and smoky, it’s one of the restaurant’s fastest moving dishes.
Hubby’s Lamb (3600) is plated in small mounds along a dark platter. It’s been sous vide for many hours so is soft and flaky. A smoked sweet potato mash, kohila leaves, onion jam and polos (jackfruit seeds) gift a tremendous complexity of flavours, making this another tasty recipe.
Tempered Sweet Potato Mash (500) is right up my alley. This is the type of food I could happily spoon up instead of popcorn as a satisfying movie-viewing snack. Chili, garlic, onion, olive oil and turmeric add savour to the root mash.
Rare Fries (500) are wedges of potato seasoned with the chef’s own seasoning featuring curry leaf, chili, cumin, salt and pepper. They’re first blanched and then deep-fried ensuring a fluffy middle and brittle surface. Our green veg, Beans with Maldivian Fish (500), is finished off table side with the creamy stock of onion, celery and garlic poured atop in front of us. These too, I’d order again.
I should have predicted trouble when we left the ordering of dessert in the hands of our host. A conversation between Ashan and the chef manifested individual opinions on which house made ice creams (550) were the most adored and the various merits of numerous sweets … so… we ended up with five ice creams plus two desserts! To be fair however, I do understand their indecision. When the menu offers over 20 desserts and more than a dozen house made ice creams… choosing is no easy task We could easily return for a dessert sampling alone and have more than enough to feature in an article (or three!).
Of the ice creams (which I do recommend you sample), Passionfruit Chili is the favourite of the boys. Clearly holding a penchant for sweet, this version elicits broad smiles from both. Black Pepper and Green Olives is intriguing: enticing me to keep digging back in for more to decide whether or not I love it or hate it. I get to the end and am still undecided. Seeni Sambol and Sprats (dried salted fish) is the Sri Lankan version of the controversial European pepper and olive. It fills the mouth with savoury and sweetness at the same time. Extremely rich, I only manage a spoon or two. The Salted Peanut has a fantastic texture with the crumbled nuts, and the Jaggery and Sesame is fabulously creamy in the mouth, realized even more so in contrast with the rich nutty sugar rocks – much like crushed peanut brittle. I think this one is my jewel in the line-up.
Carrot Cheesecake (600) has a base made from the jackfruit seed (again showing the versatility of this fruit). The hub is creamy with a mild strain of carrot through it, and a treacle topping drizzled across the crown makes for spectacular presentation. While hubby and our sweet tooth host Ashan both lapped up the dessert with huge grins of childhood glee, in a reorder I’d ask for the syrup on the side to allow the core taste to lead.
Billin Tart (550) with coconut ice cream, uses slices of the billin fruit (belimbing asam in Malaysia, or cucumber tree in English), which have been stewed with sugar to reduce their acidic bite. It’s naturally very sour so matches well with the saccharine meringue topping. The coconut ice cream showered with crisp grated coconut acts as support, but could easily be elevated to protagonist.
We began in the bar, so ending there too seems to make sense: finishing with a post dinner sup to ease our stomachs before bedtime. Sri Lanka has a long history of arrack (coconut liquor) production and as we’re on the local trail, it would appear to be the most adept way to conclude. Ceylon Arrack is one of the more refined products on the market so we’re sure to sip this one at a leisurely pace as we contemplate the extraordinary programme we’ve just feasted on as our introduction to Sri Lanka and its bounties.
Reasons to visit: contemporary cuisine with distinctively Sri Lankan ingredients; great vibe; be sure to have a cocktail in the bar before or after dinner (or both); Beef Tenderloin Starter; Scallop Soup; Tempered Sweet Potato Mash; Lamb; Jaggery and Sesame, and Passionfruit and Chili Ice Creams.
Rare at Residence