The Famous Epicurean Menu (Every Thursday)
Tao is the fusion restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand. Every Thursday night Tao offers a so-called “Epicurean Menu”. The idea behind this is to provide the degustation concept often seen in fancy European restaurants; the chance to sample the very best the kitchen has to offer over 24 small courses.
The setting at Tao is a bit of a puzzlement. Some of the tables are near the pool, some near the large fish pond in the hotel’s courtyard. The restaurant occupies the space between the main hotel building and the Breeze bar and Taprobane restaurant meaning guests walk right through Tao to access to those places! This very odd design could certainly be a turnoff to many.
But never mind the slightly odd setting – does the food live up to the hype? Put simply: absolutely not. Nonetheless, we still somehow cautiously recommend the evening’s experience on offer. Why? 24 courses for Rs. 1800 ++ is why. This simple fact (along with the 50% discount on many reasonable wine bottles) meant that we sat down for the meal pre-disposed to have fun.
So the “good” column for this review pretty much writes itself. There aren’t too many places in the world where one can sit down for a 24 course meal in a supposedly high-end restaurant for $20. This is, de facto, a fun experience and the knowledge that your wallet will emerge relatively unscathed provides a constant sop to the disappointment the taste buds feel as each course emerges.
So what’s wrong with the food? In many ways the cuisine on offer here reflects everything bad about both Fusion cuisine and the Colombo dining scene. Firstly, while Fusion cooking can be great, its potential lies in the removal of unnecessary cultural limitations to the ingredients or techniques that can be used in a dish. While we’re all for exploring the universal language of food and challenging conventions and expectations in search of yumminess, what the fusion label does not provide however, is a license to haphazardly hurl ingredients together in the hope that they will somehow magically work. With that said, there were no flavour combinations that necessarily couldn’t have worked; the problem lied more in the execution. The meal seemed like a bit of a throwback to the bad old days of Colombo’s dining scene – a time where five-star hotels could get away with living up to West-aping pretension without paying much attention to the food. And that’s how the food came across here: lazy.
One never felt that the chef was trying to show off his vision to us, that he had decided that each dish he presented was as delicious as it could possibly be. This is something one wants to feel whenever paying for food, whether at a road-side stall or the ritziest five-star establishment. Instead, only a week after eating here we can only remember one stand out “course” – an unusual, decadent chocolate mousse with olive oil and berries. (The discounted cocktails from the bar were also carefully and lovingly prepared – we started our evening with a rum watermelon jalapeno concoction and a basil, grapefruit and honey martini. Both were outstanding). But without exception the remaining 23 courses have faded into a hazy memory cluttered with would-be culinary buzzwords like jus, wrap, glaze, cream of and salsa. It felt like it was cooked by someone who needed to make up the numbers.
And even the numbers themselves were somewhat disappointing this time. Given that the unique meal experience is the overarching saving grace of the whole event, it was disappointing to see how many of the “courses” were grouped together on a single plate. This seems to have got worse in the six months between our visits here. The first time most of the courses were genuine courses in every sense of the word. The course was brought to the table, consumed, and then the plate removed in anticipation of the following course. Now it seems that, despite the huge number of staff present, someone has decided to downplay the single best feature of the evening. This time every dish came on the same plate as at least two others. This significantly reduces the magical fun of the evening. The seven dessert “courses” were piled on our table all at once on two separate plates. It was hard to see a rationale for this decision apart from reducing work for their staff and getting people in and out quickly – both anathema to the discerning foodies a degustation menu is meant to attract.
In fact just writing this has made me feel like a fool for in any way recommending this place, let alone stating at the top that I may in the future return myself. However, if in the future a special occasion falls on a Thursday, who’s to say that the experience on offer (slow consumption of food that, while very disappointing for a restaurant with any kind of international class pretensions, isn’t actually unpleasant, along with great cocktails, decent cheapish wine and the ability to smoke with gay abandon at an outdoor restaurant) won’t yet lure me back again.