Upali's is a welcome new restaurant near the Nelum Pokuna junction. It does affordable Sri Lankan food in an Indian style location with excellent service.
Most new restaurants in Colombo try to do 80 western dishes and do them badly. Upali's focuses on a few Sri Lankan favorites and does them well. It's a welcome change.
Upali's Veg Set Menu, Plus Chicken
We went to Upali's for lunch and tried the basic vegetarian set menu (Rs. 250) with an additional serving of chicken curry (Rs. 250). Five hundred rupees is not cheap once you put it all together, but we had more than enough curries for two people. Could have done with a bit more rice, which they did offer at the end.
It was very good. Very healthy, fresh, well presented and tasty. A good range of village favorites - battu, bitter gourd, purippu, gotu kola, tomato curry - plus papadam, dried chili and karavela (dried fish). Basically a good, healthy gamay lunch. Comes with rice of course, that seasoned with curry leaves and a bit of caramelized onion. They serve it on plates that look like banana leaves, so it's almost the complete experience.
The chicken curry
We added a chicken curry, which basically doubles the price, but that altogether made for an fully satisfying meal. It's not too spicy and left us feeling not heavy at all after.
Too much Sri Lankan dining out involves food that is way saltier/oilier than you would ever cook at home, presumably as a 'treat'. As people start eating out more and more, however, this becomes completely unsustainable. Upali's, on the other hand, actually tastes and feels healthy. They're using fresh produce, traditional recipes, and generally not trying to show off. We wish more restaurants would do the same, just stick to something they know and do it well.
As a suitable finish, they have a lovely cardamom tea (Rs. 80), though we actually started with this.
Other veg items they have on the menu are Hathmaluwa - a seven item veg curry they say is 2000 years old - for Rs. 390, Kosata Curry (jack seed) for Rs. 350, Batu Moju (eggplant) for Rs. 350 and more. They have fish curries ranging from Rs. 250 (fresh fish with coconut milk and saffron) to Rs. 600 (Matara Malu Ambulthiyal, tuna with a sour and dry curry). Also the classic chicken curries (Rs. 250 for the usual, Rs. 1,110 for a whole slow cooked chicken) and goat/mutton (Rs. 350 - 650). No pork or beef.
We really like what they've done here with the menu. They've structured it like truly Sri Lankan meals. A basically vegetarian base, then fish, then a few chicken and goat dishes. Basically how average Sri Lankans actually eat. It would have been very easy to front-load with 'treat' dishes, like pork curry and other meats, but they've stuck to traditional and we think it works very well.
For dinner they've got idiappa (string hoppers, Rs. 200 for 15), appa (hoppers, 1 egg plus 3 plain for Rs. 200), pittu (ground rice cylinders, Rs. 200 for two), roti and egg roti (Rs. 150 for two roti or Rs. 80 for one egg roti), Roast Paan (Rs. 75 for a big one, 500 gm), and kottu roti (chopped up roti, Rs. 490 for chicken). Basically everything we know and love and nothing we don't.
The desserts are also the usual, wattalapan (Rs. 180), kiri pani (curd and treacle, Rs. 290, etc).
The menu front
Now, as you can see, the prices are reasonable, but not low if you get everything you want. While a veg set menu is Rs. 250, with the extra chicken and tea that came out to Rs. 820 (including 10% service charge). So, not expensive for two, but we also didn't eat a lot. It's also much more expensive than a streetside kade, where you can get equally good food, if you know where to go.
Some of the other prices seem expensive - Rs. 350 for batu moju - but given the size of the dishes we saw we think each would comfortably serve three. We would call Upali's an affordable place, but it's not cheap. What you get in return for the premium over street prices is a venue that families, businesspeople and tourists alike would be comfortable in and a level of service and cleanliness that we think is worth paying a bit extra.
The outdoor seating
Upali's has a great location, near the Nelum Pokuna junction, towards Town Hall and across from Vihara Maha Devi park. It actually doesn't have enough parking for the demand they seem to be getting, only space for about 8-10 cars, including street parking.
What's interesting about the interior is that they've basically laid it out like a middle class Indian restaurant (like Elite in Bamba). Bright, clean and even a bit godacious, especially the chandeliers and plush seating on the top floor, in the more private seating areas. We wouldn't call it aesthetically beautiful, with the exception of the outdoor seating above, but we think it's a great idea. Nobody's taken the efficiency and style of that sort of Indian restaurant and applied it to Sri Lankan food. We think it works very well.
Nawaloka - the company running Upali's - is mainly into hospitals, and it shows a bit in terms of the decor and bathrooms, but this also means that everything is impeccably clean.
When we went the place was buzzing and full of people, though they haven't really marketed themselves at all yet.
The service we had was amazing. They turned down the A/C without a fuss, offered table water as a first choice and were there at every point we needed them. We didn't wait to order, we didn't wait for the cheque, nor did we ever feel rushed. The waiters knew the menu, they were friendly, they gave everything with the polite two hands, and they cleared everything promptly and well.
We think this is again because Upali's has stuck to traditional fare done a bit better. Too often we meet waiters completely baffled by the western fare they're supposed to serve, and the cooks also don't understand what they're supposed to making. In this case the waiters are obviously comfortable with everything on the menu, as are the cooks.
We had a wonderful service experience, but do tell us if anything changes.
The gotu kola
We don't gush much, but we're really impressed with Upali's. Colombo has been crying out for this sort of restaurant - someplace that does local food a little bit better. We've had Nuga Gama in the Cinnamon and Raja Bojun next door, but both were a bit expensive. We also have excellent street side kades, but those don't suit every crowd and can't really scale. Finally there's a proper middle class Sri Lankan restaurant, and we're really happy that it exists.
Sometimes the best innovation is incremental, and Upali's has taken traditional Sri Lankan food, tweaked slightly and served it in a middle class Indian style. We think it's a winning combination.
The veg set menu is a good deal for lunch (Rs. 250). The cardamom tea is very nice.