Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Kolamba, Soho

I was convinced I had been before to the building that Kolamba occupies. Home to a constantly shifting and evolving - for better or for worse - row of shops and restaurants, Kingly St is one of those places that even if you're a regular Soho wanderer you will always spot a new addition or somewhere with "Coming soon!" on the hoarding, and you never really know what's going to happen next.

In fact, I hadn't ever been here before - for some reason I thought it was where short-lived but much-loved BBQ spot Shotgun once stood, but a look on Google Streetview reveals that was a few doors down. And I'm afraid I avoided the site when it was seafood proto-chain Claw, mainly because - and correct me if I'm being unreasonable here - I tend to think anywhere naming itself after a part of a crab, and using a crab as its logo, should serve at least some fresh crab* (the only thing they had on offer when I peered at the menu was soft-shelled crab, which doesn't count).

Anyway to Kolamba, an altogether more enticing prospect, the latest smart, mid-range Sri Lankan restaurant (after Hoppers, and Paradise, and probably loads more I'm unaware of) to bless central London. And the evening got off to a cracking (pun intended) start with some tastefully bijou pappadums and some superbly balanced chutneys, one date and lime with a brilliant sour/chilli note, and one "Malay Pickle", earthier and sweeter. There seems to be an endless capacity for the Indian subcondinent to dazzle with the inventiveness and variety of their pickled goods.

Hot Butter cuttlefish consisted of nicely bouncy little parcels of squid in a bubbly coating, doused in chilli and nestled amongst various fried vegetables. A "bar-room classic" so the menu says, and who am I to argue - I can not think of a single table in any pub in the UK that wouldn't look better with this colourful little dish served alongside a nice cold pint.

Black pepper prawn fry were equally enjoyable, but would have been completely useless as a bar snack thanks to the utter mess you have to make of yourself to eat them. I actually made an elbows-forward trip to the bathroom sink to clean myself up twice in the few minutes or so it took to eat these tasty little fellas, such was the ability of that rich, dark sauce to attach itself to my forearms.

Cashew Fry was only slightly underwhelming thanks to needing a bit of extra crunch from the nuts themselves. Perhaps this was entirely deliberate, and if so I'm not going to argue, but I always prefer cashews with a crunch rather than a chew, and I probably always will. And although the caramelised onions they came in with were nice, as was the beguiling spice mix, this was essentially a bowl of onions and nuts for £10.

More interesting was a Seeni Sambol, a dark, salty and umami-packed dish of onion and dried Maldive fish, with a flavour profile utterly impossible not to fall in love with.

Price, though, is something I'm going to have to start being a bit more reasonable about when it comes to judging restaurant menus. Not so long ago, a dish of 4 prawns for £20 would have had me whingeing too, but given what I know about how restaurant profits work (which is very little, but bear with me) they're almost certainly charging what they need to given the cost of ingredients, energy, staff, you bloody name it these days.

This is Jaggery Beef, a Sri Lankan staple which involves cheaper cuts of beef slow-cooked in a variety of different herbs, spices and vegetables with coconut milk and "jaggery", some kind of unrefined sugar I think but for which a brief Google is a bit inconclusive. It was fantastic though, with large, wobbly chunks of jellified fat which dissolved in the mouth.

It was almost worth ordering the tomato sambol for the resulting photo, which was so vibrantly colourful it almost gleamed like a light source in that dark Soho basement. It wasn't just about looks though - the mix of tomatoes, green chilli and lime is a reliable one, and we happily polished this off.

Finally, the house string hoppers, lovely in every way, from the bouncy fresh noodles to the tasteful bowls of coconut milk curry and fluffy Pol Sambol, a great (and - relatively - inexpensive) way of padding out your appetite at the end of the meal and ensuring we wobbled off into the Soho night nicely sated.

With food this good, you'd find it very difficult to not have a great night at Kolamba but in the interests of managing expectations we did think the tables uncomfortably close together, and a bit too small for the amount of space-hungry dishes that tend to arrive all at once. Not a dealbreaker, of course, just worth mentioning. And you'll have to decide for yourself, too, whether this objectively good but determinedly unfussy menu is worth paying the Soho premium for if you live a little closer to Harrow (Gana, Palm Beach) or Tooting (Apollo Banana Leaf, Jaffna House). Though I expect these days those aren't as cheap as they used to be, either.

Anyway there's plenty to love at Kolamba and not much to dislike, and its arrival in London is very much welcome. For as long as this city continues to play host to such a startling variety of cuisines and cultures, it will continue to produce restaurants like this, serving South Asian staples with the odd local twist, in smart and friendly surroundings, with attentive and pleasant staff. And really, what more could you want from a night out?


*Although a glance at a more recent menu online suggests they've fixed that particular supply problem.

I was invited to Kolamba and didn't see a bill.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Decimo, Kings Cross

One of London's greatest strengths is its ability to offer up a good feed, in any chosen cuisine, at most price points. Taking Spanish food as an example (as that's why we're here today), it's just as easy - and rewarding, in its own way - to sit down at Bar Pepito (Kings Cross) for ham croquetas, tomato bread and a glass of sherry and be presented with a bill of £15 as it is to head down the road to Pizarro and drop a ton on a plate of silky Iberico ham, seafood paella and a roast suckling lamb for 2. I can't think of many notable world cuisines that aren't represented at at least an option of budgets, and most can boast quite a range, from super cheap to wallet-busting.

Decimo, perched on the top floor of the five star Standard hotel in Kings Cross, will be the first to admit they are placed very firmly in the "special occasion" price range. One of the more eyecatching items on the menu is their signature tortilla topped with caviar which weighs in at £170, and though not every dish is quite this bling, this is a kitchen that prides itself on the finest ingredients, cooked perfectly. And it shows.

Before that though, a drink. The bar at Decimo is large and beautifully appointed, with interestingly designed leather bar stools and a list of house speciality cocktails alongside the usual classic repertoire. And though my martini was decent in the end, they lose a couple of points firstly for in that vast bar space having no freezers for frozen glasses, and secondly, and perhaps less forgiveably, for noticing at the last minute they were serving my drink in the wrong glass. Instead of just sticking with their first choice, which would hardly have been a problem, I watched as it was poured back into the shaker, stirred briefly and then reapplied to a smaller glass, leaving leftover martini in the shaker which I never got to enjoy. Which was a bit upsetting, to be honest.

Fortunately from the moment we were sat in a nice window table and the food started arriving, Decimo hardly put a foot wrong. The famous (caviar-less) tortilla is literally perfect, even more accomplished, with its notes of wood smoke and soft sliced potato, than the version served at Barrafina, up to this point the gold standard of Spanish egg dishes. I mean, look at the colour of that yolk.

I avoided the taco as I'd eaten enough of the things to last me a lifetime on a recent trip to San Diego and Tijuana. However, what arrived in front of my friend was so attractively constructed and colourful it really made me think twice about my decision. I did try a bite of the chicharrones on top, though, which was very nice.

Tomato salad was the kind of thing Bar Nestor (San Sebastien) would have been proud to have on its menu. These were either superb quality tomatoes, or they had been subtly sweetened somehow to bring out a more intense tomato flavour. Or in fact, most likely, both of those things. The advertised 'herbs' weren't heavy handed, just enough to add a bit of extra depth - really the star here was the main ingredient, and it really shone.

Then, all at once and with very little fanfare, four dishes that rank with some of the finest things I've ever had the pleasure of eating in the capital. Each was good enough to justify the existence of the restaurant by itself, and deserves far more attention than a few lines on a blog. But, in the interests of not boring you senseless and to stop my gushing from becoming too embarrassing, I'll keep it as brief as I can. Firstly, Iberico pork, fillet I think, cooked carefully over the flames and with just a gentle touch of pink in the flesh, which absolutely melted on the tongue, dissolving into pork fat and salt and smoke. I can hardly remember a better bit of pork, and Iberico already comes with a serious weight of expectation. This was world-class stuff.

Giant fat asparagus, again grilled with a masterful timing to just get licks of charring on the outside but be absolutely the right texture on the inside, simply seasoned and dressed with scattered rosemary sprigs. No hollandaise, no pointless spices, no cleverness or complications, just a fine ingredient, grilled and plated. We ate the whole plate in about 30 seconds between us.

One giant langoustine, was also expertly grilled so that the legs were all crisp and crunchy but the tail and claw flesh still firm and coherent. The flavour from the thing was unbelievable, sweet and salty and powerful, and enough to remind me that despite so many places overcooking, undercooking and otherwise messing up the preparation of these delicate animals, when it's done right, and you start with the very best, langoustines are my absolute favourite shellfish.

Well, my favourite before the red prawns arrived, at least. The deep, rich, buttery flavour of these beautiful things has about as much in common with a normal Atlantic prawn as a frozen fish stick does to an Alaskan King Crab - these are not just a different variety of prawn. They are the pinnacle of the seafood experience, as close to life-changing as anything else you can order in a restaurant anywhere, and we are deeply privileged to have them available to us here in London. The first slurp of the head juices (not in the least bit bitter, it's like a mini portion of the finest buttery seafood bisque, believe me) took me right back to when I'd first tried them back in 2009. I pointed this out to my friend, who said it was the wankiest thing I've ever said.

Desserts were pleasant enough to preserve the memory of what had come before, if just a little unambitious (and rather small). Crema Catalana was nicely done but about 2 teaspoons worth, and I suppose a single scoop of masa ice cream continues the stripped-back nature of the way they go about things at Decimo, but it would have been a bit forgettable indeed without the suggested pairing of caramelly Mount Gay rum.

But despite the odd niggle, Decimo managed to be one of the most memorable meals of the last few years simply down to an experts sourcing of the finest British and Spanish ingredients, and an ability to present them at the very peak of their powers. And yes, for this kind of experience you need to open your wallet a bit. A quick tot up of the menu reveals our dinner would have come to about £120 each, not a ruinous amount of money compared to what you can shell out (no pun intended) elsewhere, but still an amount that you'd need to be very confident in advance would yield significantly impressive results.

Well, take it from me, you can be absolutely sure Decimo is worth your time and your money. Inexperienced bar staff and unadventurous desserts, these are things that can be easily fixed and even if not, are not the end of the world. Where it matters, in sourcing of ingredients and live fire cooking skills, Decimo is already streets ahead of its rivals, and it's only going to get better. If you have any kind of curiosity about just how good food like this can be, and you have the means to enjoy it, then don't even hesitate for a second. This is the restaurant you've been waiting for.


I was invited to Decimo and didn't see a bill.