It seems like almost every week there’s a new restaurant or cafe popping up somewhere on the streets of Colombo – so much so that YAMU writers are developing symptoms of RBS (round belly syndrome) trying to keep up with it all. But popping buttons and ventricose bundis aside, it isn’t all bad; 2013 has seen the arrival of a few excellent establishments that really do stretch out the highs of Colombo’s culinary landscape: there’s the wonderful, healthy alternative to the buth kade, Currymuch – which we don’t know how we ever lived without – the exquisite chocolates of Gerard Mendis Chocolatier and, of course, the contentious ‘return’ of the emerald palmed king, New Banana Leaf.
Last week, yet another cafe materialised, adding itself to the ever growing list of ‘new in 2013’: The Barnesbury. Completely unrelated to The Kingsbury – although following what I hope isn’t a rising trend in random British pub nomenclature – this self-designated restuarant/cafe/lounge is, well, we’re not quite sure. The Barnesbury fits into a fuzzy genre of somewhat nondescript cafe/restaurant/lounges that are springing up across the city – places like The Boulevard, Cioconat or Choco Luv that try to stretch widely across multiple culinary domains, offering absolutely everything you can think of on encyclopaedia-sized menus while running amok with concept of fusion food.
But despite an alarmingly prolific menu, the food here isn’t bad. It’s the wide-ranging sort of fare you can expect from Commons, while not quite as good. We had a respectable baked crab (Rs. 650)- cheesy, soft and sprinkled generously with herbs – a french onion soup (Rs. 350) – fine, if a bit salty – and a slightly tough but well-seasoned jerk chicken (Rs. 575). All of which was fine, but you do wonder… what’s the point of this place? What are they trying to be, and is there anything that would make us come back?
And I think that’s the problem. The Barnesbury really doesn’t really seem to know what it’s trying to be. You enter the building through a slim rectangular space that resembles the front end of a coffee shop. There’s the cupcake shelves and large chalkboards, the enormous lightbulbs and kitschy book page wallpaper. Walk through to the next bit, though, and the design completely changes – the interior’s been licked into shape according the rather tasteless design of the house it occupies – unattractive stucco walls, polished terrazzo (?) floors and what I can only say is a rather goday indoor fountain, trimmed with a golden railing. The garden, however, is lovely. Spacious, well-lit and scattered with rather interesting seating.
While Commons really filled a niche in Colombo dining – a great, well-designed hang out space that could be occupied by teenagers and businessmen alike – none of its followers have got it quite right. While the Barnesbury has the potential to be rather good (they’re sitting on prime real estate – a simply enormous house and garden on Barnes Place), right now, they’re somewhat unremarkable. And this isn’t really what Colombo needs – another vague eating space. The filigreed font, the fancy name, the opulent, kitschy designs – there’s all the pretensions of grandeur but none of the delivery. But the garden is really quite pretty, the prices are reasonable and they do make a great date & honey shake – however, it feels like there just needs to be a litte something else. Then again, it’s early days, so treat this as a preview. We’ll go back in a couple of months and see if things have changed.