The Gallery Café is a stalwart of Colombo’s dining scene. Occupying the former office of Sri Lanka’s (and arguably South/South East Asia’s) most renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, it significantly raised the city’s restaurant standards bar when it opened in 1998.
15 years later it still stands as one of Colombo’s best restaurants. The food consistently rises above the mediocrity that is all too common in the city – but not too far beyond.
DINNER REVIEW (24 September 2012)
We did a dessert review, now here’s a contemplation on the food (this is one of the few restaurants in Colombo where the food is actually worth contemplating).
So what new can possibly be said about the Gallery Cafe? It’s been around since 1998 and is a perennial fixture on any list of Colombo’s top restaurants…
Their specialty seems to be the now slightly passe genre of fusion food. So combinations of Sri Lankan ingredients/spices with western techniques – the jaggery sundae – or Western ingredients/flavors with Sri Lankan techniques – curried apple sauce. They also do some unadulterated Sri Lankan dishes – black pork curry – which get rave reviews.
Changing food fashion aside, the Gallery Cafe consistently serves very good food and its killer app is the fact that it’s located in the beautifully converted former office of South/South East Asia’s most celebrated architect Geoffrey Bawa. For tourists, the cafe rightfully sits at the top of the list of Colombo’s must visit eating spots, for the location as much as the food.
Consistency, consistency, consistency is the real secret to the Gallery Cafe’s success. In a city where precious few places can deliver a high quality dining experience twice in a row, Gallery has succeeded again and again. There are the occasional slip ups – the odd fallen chocolate nemesis, a slightly watery batch of ice cream – but over 15 years they’ve maintained a basic standard higher than any other restaurant in Colombo.
So last week I made my latest visit to the Gallery expecting very good food. Which is exactly what I got. We ordered the roast pork with mustard sauce (Rs. 1145), black pork curry (Rs. 1095) and grilled seer with coconut risotto (Rs. 1380) and it was all very good. However, because YAMU is about getting the best out of Colombo I’m going to be a little bit critical.
If the food is very good what is there to criticize?
Well, the Gallery Cafe serves consistently good food (it even says so on their own website) but it doesn’t often serve excellent food, and I think it could.
On this occasion I found myself staring at a menu that has barely changed in 15 years – pan fried calves liver, pumpkin gnocchi, coconut encrusted modha – and realised I was not even slightly excited by the prospect of my imminent meal. I know the menu by heart, have tried more than half the things on it and know exactly what to expect – consistently good food. So there really wasn’t any of the excitement and anticipation that is part of a really great restaurant experience.
Now the unchanging menu is an oft repeated criticism and the management tries to answer this by saying people have their favorites and that this is simply part of the restaurant’s appeal. But while there are definite classics on the menu – I’d cry if they removed my calves liver, or the black pork curry, there are also some dishes – some of the seas food pasta combos – that could easily be dispensed with and replaced with something more innovative.
I think my complaint here is that there is a line between very good and excellent food and the Gallery doesn’t cross that line often enough not because it cant but because its too comfortable at the top of Colombo’s mediocre restaurant pile.
Too few of the dishes really soar – our roast pork was good but honestly with a good cut of pork and a free afternoon I could give it a run for its money. The seer fish with coconut risotto was interesting but the coconut risotto was basically kiribath and the curried apples weren’t really the sort of fusion success that make you go wow.
Again the absence of excellence isn’t a complaint per se especially at Rs 1000 per dish in a city where Kotto Roti now costs Rs 500, these dishes are tasty and very good value, but we’d like this restaurant to set its sights a little higher. These people clearly know their food, have a beautiful premise as well as access to the full rage of produce offered up by the island.
We’d like them to try to produce food that’s actually world class and not just good and good value for Colombo.
We know they can because their best dishes really are excellent. Their black pork curry stands as the first and best attempt to take the country’s premier meat curry to the restaurant table, while their deserts regularly cross the line from good to excellent. My favorite is the jaggery creme brule. The jaggery adds a dark depth to the baked custard and lifts a french bistro staple to real excellence. It’s a unique and successful fusion, one you can’t get anywhere else. It makes use of local produce – thalaguli and kithul jaggery – to produce something world class. We’d like to see more dishes like this but given the Gallery seems to be absolutely set in its ways this is unlikely.
Again it must be said that on many, many visits I have never really been able to fault the basic quality of the food here so this isn’t so much a criticism as a suggestion and comment on the general state of Colombo’s dining scene. The gallery has been allowed to rest on it laurels for far too long. It’s still good but it feels complacent and someone really, really needs to come up with a serious competitor or in 15 years coconut risotto (ie. fancy kiribath) will still be the height of Colombo gastronomy.
DESSERT REVIEW (30 July 2012)
The Gallery’s familiar purple dessert menu is the benchmark for sweet things in Colombo. All the basic food groups chocolate, meringue, tart, cake, custard, ice cream and trifle are represented here.
The list features many desserts but after 15 years of gluttony we’ve whittled it down to a few favourites.
Here’s a break down of our last degustation.
Chocolate fondant – soft baked chocolate on the outside, molten chocolate sauce inside with homemade orange ice cream to cut through the richness – always a good choice for the chocolate addicted.. However the orange ice cream seems to vary in quality from deliciously sharp at times to watery and weak at others) – 7.5 /10
Deviation – the Chocolate Nemesis, a rich baked chocolate confection between a cake, fondant and brownie, is the menu’s other Chocolate heavy weight. Served with a dollop of cream it’s a good alternative to the fondant.
Lemon meringue pie – layers of meringue, fresh lemon curd- a classic combination, very well executed. The refreshing lemon tang is balanced by the sweetness the meringue and it manages somehow to be both rich and light. Perhaps at times a little too sweet, and could we have a bit more crunch in the meringue? 7.5/10
Jaggery Creme Brule – Take a French classic and localize it with the best of Sri Lanka- local jaggery and sexed up thala gulli (sesame seed sweets) this is fusion food at its best and it never disappoints. The Jaggery makes the crème that much richer and the sesame adds sophistication to what might otherwise be an overly simple dish- 9/10
Also – The double chocolate cheese cake, and the trifle (not sampled on this visit) round off Yamu’s list of favourites. But well its all pretty good so feel free to pile on the calories exploring the menus many permutations.