I’ve had great food in Sri Lanka, often in places without electricity or discernable civilization. Once you get table linen and menus, however, things go bad. Sri Lankan cuisine hasn’t really gone upscale. It just gets less good and the service gets more surly. They’ve figured out that you can charge more and that these menus and credit card machines are required, but the food hasn’t kept pace.
It is very difficult to get good Sri Lankan food in a restaurant setting. In a kade, for sure, off a banana leaf, yes, but in a restaurant restaurant? Not really. The one exception in my memory was Peninsula, the Jaffna restaurant where the Nawala Machang is now, but that’s shut down. Raja Bojun? No. That place under Renuka, decent dhose, but not really. Nuga Gama, the fake village in Cinnamon Grand? I don’t know, but the construction of a faux village in a five star hotel is just too much for me. I just can’t do it.
Instead you get the best food at kades or at places like Dunhinda in Athurigiriya. The problem is that these places are generally unfindable by people like tourists, and they are generally more male and a bit less comfortable than a restaurant setting. I mean, you’re wiping your hands with newspaper and sitting with random people. I like it, but there are certain situations where that’s not ideal.
There is, however, one exception. Ministry Of Crab. It’s not a rice and curry place at all, but they still do food that’s uniquely Sri Lankan (as exported to Singapore) – pepper crab, chicken curry, prawn curry, etc. The kicker is that they serve roast paan and pol sambol. It takes the best of local food and tweaks it just the right amount, the amount to be tastier and more interesting, not a random amount to just seem more posh. In terms of crab, they simply upped the quality and size of the ingredients, they didn’t go for any fusion to cover up. They just made the raw ingredients better. One of the best dishes, the butter crab is essentially just crab. You have butter on the side if you want, but I found myself not using it. Where recipes are tweaked, it is in the spirit and essence of the generations of tradition that made, say, chicken curry great in the first place.
What’s remarkable is first, a high-end restaurant thought to offer a dish as humble as the ubiquitous pol sambol, and second, it was the best pol sambol I have ever tasted. Somewhat firm pieces of coconut with the crunch of maldive fish, a dose of citrus and a real chilli kick.
And how does a great pol sambol make this the best restaurant in Colombo?
Because that really cuts to the heart of what sets MOC apart– it uses the best local ingredients to create a unique restaurant experience.
This isn’t a second rate imitation of a French or Italian dish the chef learned at hotel school or the owner happened to enjoy while travelling – these are dishes that have no better iterations anywhere else in the world. This is the only place on earth I can eat export quality Sri Lankan crabs fresh from the ocean, and it’s the only place I can eat them with hunks of local bread and excellent pol sambol.
It’s an inimitable experience and the best of the rest of Colombo’s dining – Spoons, Chesa Swiss, Paradise Road, London Grill – offer, at best, only good imitations. Lovely though they can be- chocolate nemesis (Paradise Road), steak (London Grill) or a bit of molecular gastronomy (Spoons) can be had better in other parts of the world. The combinations available at MOC though, while drawing inspiration from everywhere, take full advantage of Sri Lanka which is why this restaurant fills me with hope for the country’s culinary future in a way that nowhere else quite does. (YAMU)
What I generally agree with is the general rationale. Personally, I’ve gotten crazy food highs at MoC. It is expensive (not by western standards, but by local) so I usually go when friends from abroad are in town. They’ve all loved it. In that sense, I am very proud of MoC, because these people would have had great Japanese or Swiss or other dishes that Sri Lankan restaurants can do well, but they would have never had an experience like MoC. So yeah, I’m happy to say Ministry Of Crab is the best restaurant in Sri Lanka, and I hope that Dharshan and more like him continue to push Sri Lankan cuisine higher.