Half in an open-air beach shack, and the other half under the stars, Loon Tao serves delicious pan-Asian seafood on Mt. Lavinia beach, at a reasonable price. The restaurant’s biggest culinary strength is the simplicity of its cuisine. Leaning heavily on traditional Asian flavours – coriander, chilli, garlic, fennel seed, sesame oil, lime and a range of peppers – they have elevated their fare above the humdrum, simply through masterful fine-tuning.
You might never encounter a truly inspiring dish there, nor one that is exotic to a modern south-Asian palate, but Loon Tao’s standards rarely dip below excellent, and the chefs know which dishes to pack with flavor, and when to coax the morning’s catch into the limelight with an unintrusive treatment. Their Thai-style garupa, which straddles both approaches, is a highlight, and you’re unlikely to find better Szechuan-style cuttlefish in the same price range anywhere on the island.
The price Loon Tao pays for this consistency though, is a lack of adventure. Repeat visits yield diminishing returns, because one dish, while delicious, tastes little different from the next. The flavours you found reassuring on your first bite lapse into gastronomic routine as the waiters trot out each new offering from the vast, but uncannily limited menu. If it wasn’t for seasonal changes in the night sky above, or the strength of the waves washing ashore nearby, it is difficult to distinguish one evening at Loon Tao from the next.
But there is Loon Tao’s trump card – its location. About halfway along the ‘Golden Mile’ strip, it’s one of a few restaurants sharing the best spot on the beach, where the sea is just far enough from the entrance, which in turn is easily accessed by hopping the train tracks at the end of College Road, and taking a short stroll on the sand. The thatched roof and rough wooden tables embellish the atmosphere, although, Loon Tao doesn’t always get its ambience right. An acoustic musician is hired to perform most nights, and he’s generally quite good, but often you want nothing but the waves making music in your ears, and as laidback as his tunes are, they can become an irritation. Occasionally you will find the restaurant next door is hosting a loud wedding reception or work function, and nothing kills the mood quite like Lil’ Wayne honking out obscenities into the Indian Ocean.
Despite its flaws, a visit to Loon Tao is thoroughly worthwhile, particularly for the uninitiated. It is also probably the best restaurant on the strip – though that might have something also to do with the paucity of quality contenders. You may not enjoy Loon Tao as a regular evening out, but then there are rare nights of bliss, when the moon rises over the horizon, sending it’s light scattering across the water, and with a sea breeze in your face and the sand between your toes, you could be eating anything in the world and feel it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted.