Ensconced in a great banyan tree in the heart of Colombo’s entertainment district, Nuga Gama serves signature Sinhala cuisine, escapism and enchantment. To have dined there is to have glimpsed at an ancient Sri Lanka that has long-since begun to disappear into a blur of Western technicolour. It seems odd to hoist this restaurant up as a paragon of authenticity, because Nuga Gama is a venture from the masters of the plush and fashionable at Cinnamon Grand. But perhaps every Sri Lankan has a soft corner for the village of yore: paddy farmers dressed in loincloths that out-skimp most bikinis, women returning from the well with clay pots balanced on heads, and children picking fruit in trees – and it is admiration for rural Sri Lanka that defines Nuga Gama. Despite being within 100 metres from the the glitz of London Grill or Lagoon, there is not a hint of falseness about the place.
The vast canopy of the banyan, which gives the restaurant its name, shuts out the Colombo skyline and provides much of Nuga Gama’s ambience. If the tree is not enough to transport the diner to the village, the staggering attention to detail in the man-made surrounds, complete the ruse. The restaurant is accessed through a narrow walkway lit by torches made from king coconut husks, and flanked by an old ox-cart and farming equipment. The awnings under which the food is served are made of timber and clay, with dried coconut branches forming the roof. The staff are dressed in sarongs, while a three-piece band plays softly on traditional flute and drums. It is difficult to imagine Nuga Gama could have carried its theme more flawlessly.
Sri Lankans will not encounter life-changing cuisine at Nuga Gama. The offerings are familiar to the point of being dull, and no fandangled techniques have been employed to enhance, embellish or twist favourites toward modernity. Negombo prawns, cashew nut curry, kalu pol pork and brinjal moju can all be enjoyed with white rice, yellow rice, string hoppers, hoppers, pittu, and of course pol sambol. But it is familiar food done exceedingly well. There may be Colombo restaurants that do one or two of these dishes better, but for across-the-board quality, Nuga Gama is tough to beat.
The jackfruit seed (kos ata) curry was a particular favourite, poached just long enough for the mustard, chillies, turmeric and coconut milk to soften and flavour the seeds, but not so long that they lose form and texture. My only contentions were that ambul thiyal was not served and that the red chicken curry lacked depth of flavor. But they were minor complaints when excellence abounded in so much else.
Dessert (and that term is loosely applied here) consisted of buffalo curd with kithul treacle, fresh fruit, and a selection of Sri Lankan sweets. The kalu dodol and rulan aluwa were a nice way to finish the meal, and to complete the commitment to theme, there was no ice cream was in sight.
At Rs. 1500 per person, it’s certainly not cheap, and be sure to call ahead to ensure there will be a full service, as they can only seat 20 people under cover if there is a threat of rain. Nuga Gama may not inspire that heady rush of a new culinary flame, but it deals liberally in the warm and satisfaction of familiar love. Sinhala food, given an archaic treatment, amid the bustle of a modern metropolis.