Located in an unpromising basement room at the bottom of the Renuka Hotel Palmyrah has long been one of the best places in the city for Sri Lankan food. A cuisine type which, quite bafflingly, is massively underrepresented in the capital of Sri Lanka. This is not to say you don’t get Sri Lankan food in Colombo, you do. You get tons of it – in little road side kades, informal eateries and roving food-carts – but in terms of sit down restaurants – with table cloths, air-conditioning, and waiters in ungrubby uniforms – there are only a smattering of Sri Lankan options in the city.
There’s the ever reliable Green Cabin, the not so reliable Raja Bojun, Cafe on the 5th and at the top end Nuga Gama and the Hilton’s curry leaf.
More or less rounding off the paltry selection of restaurants dedicated to the cuisine of the island in Colombo is Palmyrah, which specializes in the food of the north, of Jaffna. Here you find the spicier, richer, more complex curries of the peninsula, plus a full array of Sri Lankan staples – hoppers, string-hoppers, pittu, thosai etc.
There’s that distinct taste of Jaffna food – lots of fennel, a darker more aromatic curry base, less coconut milk and an abundance of sea food (try the fish pittu). Of all the variations of Sri Lankan cuisine the cooking of Jaffna is the most sought after. For years most Colombars’ quests for northern delicacies ended at Palmyrah – trips to the actual North were out of the question.
Although the restaurant’s interior – sterile and over-bright – isn’t all that attractive, the food at Palmyrah has always been something special. Piles of super crispy hoppers, unusual mixed meat – chicken and mutton, curries and of course delicious plates of Jaffna crabs and prawns. While it’s a city Sri Lankan staple with so many new spots to sample it’s been difficult to make time for a trip to the Renuka Hotel, but I dropped in the other day and found things were still in good working order.
The interior does seem to have been somewhat refurbished, yet it manages to retains the same bland, business-hotel, basement feel (not a good thing). Their lovely old paintings of Jaffna are less prominent than they should be. The service though was helpful –and we ordered raal varai, mutton curry, a crab meat curry, some prawn rulang, and lots of hoppers.
Barring the mutton curry which was under-flavored and overspiced, everything was good. Small things like the accompanying sambols and rassam starter were pitch perfect – spicy but not overpowering. The varai, a prawn based sambol, was delicious- lightly spiced, packed with the taste of crustacean, I’m beginning to think this is the king of Sri Lankan sambols. The rulang – spicy bits of prawn tossed with egg was also excellent and the crab meat curry was rich and sweet. Crucially the basic hoppers were light, crisp and excellent, though the egg ones could have had runnier centres.
This was a tasty meal, perhaps there was less of the wow this is how good Sri Lankan food can be, factor I’ve experienced in the past… I think the flavors have become a little more generic – less clearly Jaffna, but its still very good and at about Rs. 1000 per head, good value. One of best places in the city for a curry meal – though it would be much more popular if they did a little more with the decor.