So here it is. The big one… the most ambitious and bombastic new feature on Colombo’s restaurant landscape- the Ministry of Crab (MOC).
Dharshan Munidasa, the food brain behind the operation, has garnered a loyal following through his consistently excellent Nihonbashi Japanese restaurants. MOC, however, is a much more prominent undertaking. In partnership with two of Sri Lanka’s best known faces - cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene - it claims to be the best place in the world to sample the renowned Sri Lankan crab. Occupying prime space in the landmark Dutch Hospital complex, the restaurant specializes in serving enormous crustaceans that would otherwise be whisked away to more prosperous consumers in Singapore and Malaysia.
However, the beasts come with a formidable price-tag, and at Rs. 2500 for the smallest offerings, this isn’t exactly the Rs. 250 crab lunch at Mayuri hotel.
So with all the fanfare, the prices, the celebrity endorsements, the question Colombars are asking is – Does it live up to the hype?
The answer, in a word - yes.
YAMU deems this the best restaurant in Colombo.A bold claim, so how did we reach this conclusion? Let me walk you through a meal (or you can jump to the decisive element at the end of the article).
You enter the Dutch hospital, turn left, and at the end of the first courtyard find yourself in a long, soft-lit, orange and black space safely removed from the screaming younglings at O! Pub. The décor is in good taste but doesn’t stand out in anyway –orange and black theme, hardwood tables and chairs, simple tropical flower arrangements, not even the finery of table cloths. The Dutch Hospital’s ancient high-roofed, thick-walled charm adds the necessary atmosphere. The fundamental simplicity is a good sign and MOC is free of the ‘fine dining’ pretentions that have held-back other claimants to the city’s best restaurant throne.
In fact the whole dining experience is refreshingly informal – perfectly logical given the restaurant revolves around crustaceans that can’t really be eaten with a modicum of formality. The menu too is simple - a minimum of dishes and serving styles. The crabs come in nine sizes from the 500g ‘1/2 Kilo Crab’ to 1.5 kg chicken-sized monsters, and there are six ways you can have them prepared. This still leaves plenty of room for argument and healthy pre-ordering debate.
After protracted negotiations we ordered a ½ kilo Garlic Crab, a Prawn Curry and a Colossal (1.3kg) Black Pepper Crab. To keep us entertained in the hungry space before the food’s arrival we ordered a bottle of Prosecco (the YAMU lifestyle doesn’t cover champagne).
We started with the Garlic Crab- it must be noted that even this microscopic (by MOC standards) offering was reasonably sized- and from the first the bite it was delicious. Incredibly sweet and perhaps the definition of succulent. Still as a relative tiddler between four people it was gone in a few mouthfuls so we found ourselves scooping up the excellent garlic sauce with fat hunks of kade paan (local bread).
Once no trace was left of the sauce we moved on to the Prawn Curry. Initially this seemed a bit of a come down. The fleshy lagoon and tiger prawns didn’t induce quite the same wow as the garlic crab though we did note a depth of flavour that set even this simple curry apart.
While both the prawns and particularly the garlic crab were potential meals in themselves (as long as you order the right size) our meal only really began when the colossal Pepper Crab was placed on the table. A 1.3 kg crab is fundamentally a different order of animal to the fly-weights we regularly consume. There is just so much more flesh and in just a single bite we debunked the oft repeated myth - oh the small ones taste better; that, it turns out, is just consolation for people who haven’t had a colossal crab.
Every part of the crab, even the minor legs and head were filled with firm chunks of sweet meat, while the claws rivalled chicken legs for meatiness . Go for the little swimming legs at the back - they house nuggets of delicious soft flesh.
This is really a meal fit for kings- the best of Sri Lanka’s crab soaked in a dark gravy that takes full advantage of the island’s famed black peppercorns. The exploding, faintly smoky spice seems to make the crab that much sweeter and will leave you scraping at the bowl…
We didn’t stop until the last drop of sauce was gone.
Together with our bottle of fizz there wasn’t even room for the restaurant’s one dessert – Chocolate Biscuit Pudding, and after we recovered our crab addled senses there was little to do but waddle home contented.
Ok, so that’s the narrative but why was this the city’s best restaurant experience?
Pol SambolBecause of the pol sambol.
Not the answer you were expecting?
At some point, seeing us digging enthusiastically at the pepper sauce with kade paan (that’s right, no French patisserie, just local village bread), we were offered a side order of pol sambol.
What’s remarkable is first, a high-end restaurant thought to offer a dish as humble as the ubiquitous pol sambol, and second, it was the best pol sambol I have ever tasted. Somewhat firm pieces of coconut with the crunch of maldive fish, a dose of citrus and a real chilli kick.
And how does a great pol sambol make this the best restaurant in Colombo?
Because that really cuts to the heart of what sets MOC apart– it uses the best local ingredients to create a unique restaurant experience.
This isn’t a second rate imitation of a French or Italian dish the chef learned at hotel school or the owner happened to enjoy while travelling - these are dishes that have no better iterations anywhere else in the world. This is the only place on earth I can eat export quality Sri Lankan crabs fresh from the ocean, and it’s the only place I can eat them with hunks of local bread and excellent pol sambol.
It’s an inimitable experience and the best of the rest of Colombo’s dining – Spoons, Chesa Swiss, Paradise Road, London Grill - offer, at best, only good imitations. Lovely though they can be- chocolate nemesis (Paradise Road), steak (London Grill) or a bit of molecular gastronomy (Spoons) can be had better in other parts of the world. The combinations available at MOC though, while drawing inspiration from everywhere, take full advantage of Sri Lanka which is why this restaurant fills me with hope for the country’s culinary future in a way that nowhere else quite does.