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.

1 comment:

Alex C said...

I'm sorry "forearms"? How is that even possible?
Looks good though.