Review: The Gallery Cafe, Colombo, Sri Lanka

On our last day in Sri Lanka, the last members of our family tour group who were still in Colombo decided to go our separate ways for Christmas lunch. While most of the group went to Ministry of Crab for a meal, my father decided that it wouldn’t make sense for our group of four (father, brother, husband and I) to go as neither he nor my brother eat crustaceans! It would be a waste of money for them to pay $60AUD for a crab-based buffet lunch.

While I was a little bit disappointed as a crab-lover, I was also excited as it meant that we could visit somewhere that has become an icon for those who appreciate Sinhalese design, architecture and art – the Paradise Road Galleries.

The complex includes The Gallery Café where we ended up having lunch, but also includes an art gallery with rotating works, a shop with hand-crafted goods, and more.

The real highlight of the Gallery Café is the fact that it has been created out of the former offices of the great Sinhalese architect Geoffrey Bawa, arguably one of Sri Lanka’s most well-known and respected household names. The building itself then, is as much of a destination as its inspired international menu.

A sense of soul restoration begins as you step through the main doors into the first pavilion where a serene water feature somehow seems to melt away all the noises from the outside streets. Even though this area isn’t air-conditioned, it’s been designed in such a way to keep out most of Colombo’s stifling heat and humidity with a good amount of shade and consistent airflow.

Stepping into the restaurant, we were greeted with a wonderful display of cakes and sweets. It’s partly Christmas themed with some more season-appropriate cakes and puddings available, but your standard crowd pleasers of chocolate mudcakes, lemon meringue tarts and the like are still available.

We had an early lunch reservation commencing at 12pm – as we’d experienced elsewhere in Sri Lanka, it was a very early dining time for locals and so it wasn’t until about an hour later that tables started to fill up. Of course, most of the Sri Lankan population are Buddhist, so the family groups that came out for lunch were not dining out to mark Christmas as we were – they were simply there for a good meal. 

Iced Coffee (625 Sri Lankan Rupees), Virgin Frozen Strawberry Margarita (995 Sri Lankan Rupees), Virgin Colombo Sunset (525 Sri Lankan Rupees), Homemade Ginger Beer (445 Sri Lankan Rupees)

We started off with some drinks all around. Interestingly, while the menu did include alcoholic drink options, the waiter did inform us as we were being seated that they were not serving alcohol on that day. We weren’t told precisely why – perhaps it was a Poya Day? Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t affect us much as we were more than happy to go alcohol-free for our beverages. In the hot weather, having a chilled non-alcoholic beverage was actually preferable to a beer or a cocktail as it was more hydrating. 

Some soft white bread rolls to start – nothing fancy and potentially not baked in-house. The pats of butter were still very chilled, which made it particularly difficult to spread. It’s a minor problem, but does indicate a slight lack of attention to detail as leaving the butter out for just half an hour before serving it to guests would make it more spreadable.

Broccoli salad with avocado, lime and honey vinaigrette (945 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Three entrees to share – the first a Broccoli Salad with Avocado, Lime and Honey Vinaigrette. It’s an unusual salad and an unusual way of serving broccoli as a chopped, diced green mash. Though it may not look particularly appetising, the lingering crunch of the fresh broccoli and lettuce worked well with the soft avocado. The sweet yet sour honey vinaigrette simply set it all off.

Vegetarian Mediterranean Salad (995 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Another salad, as I tried to make up for ten days worth of not having enough green vegetables on our family tour around Sri Lanka! This Vegetarian Mediterranean Salad was a great combination of fresh cucumber, chickpeas, Spanish onion and raisins, with a similar honey vinaigrette dressing with a touch of mustard. What a great combination of textures – while I wouldn’t often use raisins in a savoury dish, the sweet softness worked really well with the crunchier cucumber and chickpeas. I like it, and I might use raisins in salads more often!

Batter Fried Whitebait (935 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Fried salt and pepper whitebait is a dish that you’ll often find on menus in Chinese restaurants. The trick is to keep the batter light, and to serve it when it’s still piping hot. I ordered this Batter Fried Whitebait to show Dad what fried whitebait in a non-Chinese style would taste like. The batter was a bit thicker in this fish-and-chip style fried whitebait, and was herbed for flavour. The accompanying aioli was just the right touch to give it a bit of a flavour booster. Dad’s verdict? Not bad, but not as good as Chinese-style fried whitebait! 

Beef goulash with green peas and potato mash (1675 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Beef Goulash isn’t a dish that I would normally associate with Christmas, but for some reason it was advertised on their Christmas specials menu. I won’t complain too much – I ordered this for Dad as he loves slow-cooked beef, and he was well-pleased with his dish. The buttery pea and potato mash on the side worked a treat for soaking up some of the rich goulash sauces, and the beef was cooked to the point of simply melting in one’s mouth.

Lobster, prawn and fennel lasagna (1975 Sri Lankan Rupees)

K opted for another seasonal special which again, isn’t one that I would consider a standard Christmas dish – Lobster, prawn and fennel lasagna. There’s one thing about it that does make it a remarkable Christmas dish though. The richness of both the tomato and bechamel sauce made it a particularly indulgent meal which is what Christmas is all about – overindulgence. 

Grilled lamb cutlets with potato wedges and mint sauce (3695 Sri Lankan Rupees)

My brother opted for some Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Potato Wedges and Mint Sauce. An easy and safe option, executed well with crispy crunchy seasoned wedges and well-grilled cutlets that had just the right amount of tender pinkness inside.

Grilled garlic jumbo prawns with potato wedges and green vegetables and garlic butter (2995 Sri Lankan Rupees)

I chose the Grilled Garlic Jumbo Prawns, again with potato wedges but green vegetables (bokchoy) as well. Unfortunately the garlic butter that was supposed to come out with my dish was only sent to our table ten minutes later, by which point I had already finished off half the plate. Still, it may not be a bad thing that I didn’t slather my prawns with garlic butter as they were more than tasty enough with its smoky grilled garlic flavours. 

Passionfruit and mango sorbet (865 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Onto dessert! One each naturally. K got the Passionfruit and Mango Sorbet, a seasonal special that is entirely reminiscent of the flavours of an Australian summer – or Australian Christmas. This was a wonderfully light dessert, a perfect palate cleanser for the warm weather with contrasting tart and sweet flavours.

Coffee Ice-cream (795 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Dad loves coffee, so ordered the Coffee Ice-Cream, served with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Just one bite of the ice-cream had him rolling his eyes with happiness – the coffee flavour was very strong and sharp, just like a particularly aromatic espresso.

Paradise Road Banana Split with Palm Sugar and Coconut Icecream (795 Sri Lankan Rupees)

I chose the house special of the Paradise Road Banana Split, which comes with the signature palm sugar ice-cream and coconut ice-cream. It was a particularly rich dessert with a strong sweet and caramel flavour base. A bit too much whipped cream for my liking though, and I would have preferred more of the chopped nuts on top for some texture. 

Strawberry Sundae (Strawberry red wine icecream with mascarpone, fresh strawberries soaked in red wine and almond praline (795 Sri Lankan Rupees)

My brother chose the Strawberry Sundae, which like the desserts that my father and I had, featured particularly strong and rich flavours. In this case, the overpowering flavour here was the alcoholic red wine which particularly permeated the strawberries making this a dessert which could leave you quite woozy by the end. 

Gallery Cafe offers something quite unique – high quality Western-style meals that are tinkered with to freshen and lighten them for a hotter and more humid climate. They use high quality produce, and cook substantial and tasty meals that satisfy all palates. Their varied ice-creams are a highlight, and I would always recommend ordering some of their refreshing and interesting salads to share.

It’s worth noting here that while the prices at Gallery Cafe are not outrageous by Australian standards, they are far beyond the average salary of local Sri Lankan. We paid more than four times the average daily minimum wage for a main meal – not even counting the cost of drinks, entrees and desserts. It’s a privilege to be dining at the Gallery Cafe, and I was hyper-conscious that we were having an experience that many locals would never get to enjoy.

So, if you’re lucky enough to visit Colombo, I do recommend the Gallery Cafe as a lovely place to have a meal – for the location and serenity of the venue as much as anything else!

The Gallery Cafe is located at 2 Alfred House Road in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Review: Elita Restaurant, Galle, Sri Lanka

On the very first full day of our time in Sri Lanka, it became clear that the humidity was going to be the downfall for many of the members in our family party. While K, my brother, my father and I were able to persevere in the humidity, thanks in large part to our initial stay in Singapore, many of my aunts and uncles wilted in the humidity.

After just an hour of exploring Galle Fort’s walls and the town, many of my aunts and uncles decided to head into the air-conditioned comfort of a restaurant for lunch before heading back to the hotel. My group of four people persevered for a few more hours walking along the fort walls before heading into Elita Restaurant for an early lunch.  

While it’s still located within the fort, Elita is slightly off the beaten track and isn’t on one of the main streets with the other restaurants and cafes. Instead, it’s located in a more residential area. As I mentioned, we were early for lunch, and were in fact the first group to arrive in the restaurant – clearly, midday is too early for lunch in Sri Lanka!

This did mean that we got good service though, as the waiter was able to concentrate on the needs of our table. In ordering freshly-caught fish off the hand-written whiteboard menu, I wasn’t able to decide what type of fish we wanted. Naturally, the waiter brought out both fish – snapper and garupa – out to the table for us to inspect and choose from!

Fresh Steamed Full Fish (Garupa) in Curry Sauce with Garlic Butter Rice, Market Rates (about 1300 LKR)

We ended up choosing the garupa, Fresh Steamed Full Fish in Curry Sauce for the ridiculously low price of about $11 AUD. With those prices, why not eat fresh fish every day?! This curry sauce was quite light and aromatic, which complemented the delicious garupa. The fresh chopped chillies, herbs and spring onion really finished off the fish perfectly. 

Fresh Octopus Salad with Mango Dressing Salad, 2250 LKR

We ordered a Fresh Octopus Salad with Mango Dressing – deliciously marinated octopus served with freshly diced tomato and Spanish onion which gave it that extra lift. The sweet and fruity mango dressing was a winner as well. Is this dish for everyone? No – not everyone is a fan of the texture of octopus. But even my brother who is quite a picky eater was very happy to eat this dish, so I think that says something about how tender the octopus was, and how well the dressing went with it!

Fresh Tuna Steak with Lime Cream Sauce, Fries and Salad, 1750 LKR

The last main we ordered was the Fresh Tuna Steak with Lime Cream Sauce, fries and salad on the side. This wasn’t anything special – not when compared to the garupa. In fact, the tuna was actually a little bit dry, so the lime cream sauce was much needed to make it a bit more palatable. This is definitely not a winning dish, and we would have done better to order another garupa cooked in another sauce. Lesson learned – freshly caught local fish is a better choice!

The steamed fish (first dish) came with Garlic Butter Rice, and they put some Stir-fried Kangkong on top for us as well. The rich buttery rice helped to fill the corners of our stomachs and I was able to kid myself into thinking that it was vaguely healthy because of the greens on top…wishful thinking!

Elita Restaurant was a great find in the seaside town of Galle in Sri Lanka. It’s just far enough from the touristy centre that only those truly dedicated to great food will make the effort to find it, but close enough that it’s not a hassle to get there.

The food is cooked well and while definitely Sri Lankan in nature, has a slight East Asian or European touch which may come from the years spent training in Europe by the head chef. A great place to visit for those who find street food challenging, but don’t want to eat at tourist traps either. Fresh seafood at a reasonable price (just skip the tuna) – you can’t beat it.

Elita Restaurant is located at 34 Middle Street in Galle, Sri Lanka.

Eating in Singapore, December 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

Most travellers who have visited Singapore will cringe when I say this, but one of Dad’s favourite places to eat during our stay was the Food Opera food centre in the ION Orchard mall. I know, it’s not a legitimate hawker centre and you won’t walk out smelling like satay or prawn mee. But importantly, you do walk out feeling cool and refreshed after enjoying a meal in air-conditioned comfort, and that feeling is worth a million dollars in the overwhelming heat and humidity of Singapore.

We visited Food Opera a number of times during our visit, and never ate the same thing once. From chicken rice to bak kuh teh, yong tau foo to beef noodles, there’s enough variety at Food Opera to ensure that you can try something new with every meal. And while prices are slightly higher than what you would find in most outdoor hawker centres, you get your money’s worth in hygiene and comfort. The food isn’t bad either, and consistently reminded Dad of the kind of food he used to eat in the sixties in Hong Kong – truly traditional Cantonese cooking, without fancy modern embellishments. 

We did eat in outdoor hawker centres of course. We had Satay by the Bay after a stroll through the Gardens by the Bay, and cooled off with 2-for-1 weekday cendol from the same hawker centre. We made our way to Little India where we had murtabak and biryani. Kaya toast and roti breakfasts at random kopitiams along the road were not uncommon. 

The Chinatown markets were a hit as well, where we tried popiah, kueh pie tee, and what was literally THE freshest and most delicious wife cake I’ve ever had in my whole life- and I’ve eaten my fair share of wife cake! Shout out to Mini Toast House in Chinatown Markets (Shop #02-105) for their awesome wife cake. The other highlight of Chinatown was of course, Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant. The meals themselves may be simple, but the execution is brilliant – well worth a visit.

We’re lucky enough to also have the opportunity to catch up with family and friends in Singapore…expats / locals who can take us to fantastic places for dinner like No Signboard Seafood for amazing Singaporean chilli crab, salted egg yolk prawns, and chilli and garlic pippies, before finishing off the meal with some durian from a roadside stall. Or who can take us for delicious steamed buns (bao in Chinese, or strangely, pao in Singaporean) at Tiong Bahru markets before finishing off with matcha and almond croissants from the fancy pants hipster Tiong Bahru bakery.

In the few days we had in Singapore, I can honestly say that we never once had a bad meal. We didn’t plan ahead and book for fancy places, we really just stumbled across places and ate where we saw locals congregating. Our main goal was to always try something new at each meal, so that we could introduce my dad and brother to new dishes and flavours – and I think we succeeded in that as my dad absolutely loved Singapore’s food (though not the humidity!).

Singapore really is a foodie’s paradise, and I just know that the next time we go back, we’ll have just as good a time as we did this time.