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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.