Two years ago, I wrote about the two Sri Lankan restaurants in Hong Kong, Serendip in Sheung Wan and AJ’s (currently under renovation) in Sai Kung. I am pleased to report a new addition to the Sri Lankan food scene, making it three venues in Hong Kong to enjoy the delicious food of this South Asian island.
Hotal Colombo was opened late last year on Elgin Street in SoHo by the Black Sheep Group, with its well-established formula of attractive location, specific cuisine focus, and high quality execution. The concept here is inspired by casual eateries in Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, where small street-side cafes are also referred to as hotels, or “hotals” in the local pronunciation.
The restaurant is attractively shaded with pastel hues for a bright, welcoming atmosphere. And, in terms of the food, Chef Gisela Alesbrook, herself from Sri Lanka, delivers an authentic Sri Lankan food experience with high quality ingredients.
Throughout several visits, I have gotten to sample a number of dishes from the menu. I tried three of four options from the “short eats” (appetizers) section, including the signature bone marrow varuval with pol roti (HKD88), the devilled shrimps (HKD98) and the idli sambhar with podi and coconut chutney (HKD38).
Devilled prawns are a traditional Sri Lankan appetizer, often served as an accompaniment to an alcoholic beverage. The medium sized succulent shelled prawns at Hotal Colombo are stewed with a mix of sweet and spicy flavors, where the spice predominates over the sweet — but not to the extent that it is too fiery to eat. A few pieces of red pepper add crunch, and the dish is completed with a garnish of red and green chilies and a wedge of lemon to bring out the flavor.
The bone marrow is one of the more interesting dishes on the menu. Two pieces of split-bone, marrow in, are decorated with a heap of sliced onions and herbs, covered with a flavorful, mildly spicy sauce and accompanied by a few pieces of crisp pol roti, a coconut-flavored flat bread. It’s certainly a different way to try bone marrow.
The dish was tasty, but I wasn’t as enamored with it as some other reviewers have been. At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of marrow on offer, and the flavors of the sauce and accompaniments tend to obscure the more subtle, smooth taste of the marrow itself. It might also work better as a dish you have on your own rather than one to share.
Unlike the fancy bone marrow dish, idli sambhar is a homey option that is both delicious and filling. This dish, also popular in southern India, combines steamed idlis, half-spheres of a fermented rice batter, and sambhar, a vegetable curry stew with a lentil base.
At Hotal Colombo, two idlis are placed in a bowl of the sambhar, flavored with the coarse spice powder known as podi and topped with a generous helping of creamy coconut chutney. It’s a warming, comfortable mix of flavors and textures — highly recommended.
I would also be sure to order at least one item of hoppers. These quintessential elements of Sri Lankan food are bowl-shaped pancakes prepared in a small pan and made from fermented rice flour. There are a wide variety of hoppers, and Hotal Colombo offers a hopper of the day (HKD58) in addition to a standard hopper and string hoppers, which are more like a flattened bowl of fluffy noodles.
On each of my visits, the hopper of the day was egg hopper with an egg cracked open into the middle of the dough and fried sunny-side up for an attractive yolk in a pancake bowl finish. The hoppers of whatever variety are served with kiri hodi, a turmeric-infused coconut milk gravy, and pol sombol, a dry coconut relish flavored with grated onion, chili, lime juice, salt, and a cured fish. The absorbent dough of the hoppers are perfect to sop up the flavors of the fragrant coconut gravy and tangy relish.
Kothu, as I described in my previous column on Sri Lankan food, is a staple made from chopped roti, stir-fried with vegetables, egg and/or meat and spices. Think what you might pull from your fridge and stir-fry after a night out drinking when you get home if you lived in Sri Lanka. Served hot out of the pan, it’s a tasty, complete dish, and at Hotal Colombo comes with chicken or, what I tried, lamb (HKD118).
Another staple of Sri Lankan cuisine is the karis, curry dishes that Hotal Colombo serves with chicken, lamb, black pork, fish, or vegetables. I tried both the fish kari (HKD108) and the kari with black pork (HKD108). The fish curry was excellent, with tender cubes of white fish well suffused with the flavor of the medium spicy thin red curry and topped with herbs. The black pork, on the other hand, was somewhat dry in its thicker, pastier curry. It was hard to discern the specific taste of the pork and it could have easily been any other meat.
Aside from my disappointment in the black pork curry, my only other complaint was that I found sitting in the front of Hotal Colombo during peak dinner hour to be quite loud, as the relatively long and narrow space seems to amplify diners’ voices. This wasn’t an issue on my second visit, when I was seated at the bar in the back, around the open kitchen which was quieter and a fun place to observe the chef and staff in action.
Hotal Colombo doesn’t take reservations, so you may have to wait for a table of your choice. All and all though, Hotal Colombo is a welcome addition to the dining scene in SoHo and a great place to try the flavorful cuisine of Sri Lanka.
Hotal Colombo is at 31 Elgin St, Central, Hong Kong
Open Mon to Fri noon-midnight, Sat & Sun 6pm-midnight
Reservations: +852 2488 8863
MTR: Central, about 5 mins walk
About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for 22 years, 16 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, nine half-marathons, completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker and won the U.S. National Debate Tournament way back in 1991.
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