Is Colombo Social too good to be true? This new Sri Lankan eatery in Enmore offers the traditional and contemporary flavours of Sri Lanka with charm, spice and side-serves of crisp, yeasty, bowl-shaped hoppers.
If that’s not enough, it also works with refugee support agency Settlement Services International and the Asylum Seeker Centre in Newtown to provide employment pathways for recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers. Co-owners Shaun Christie-David and Peter Jones-Best report that five of the 15 staff have come from this program so far.
The fitout is smart without being flashy, with high and low tables, cushy booths, woven hanging lamps and stacked terracotta pots. They even have the nicest customers – the table next to mine, just finishing up, tells me exactly what I should order.
So the feel-good factor is a given. But what about those other essentials of timing, pacing, quality of produce, flavour, balance, technical skills and service? In reality, Colombo Social competes with every other restaurant in Enmore Road, not with every other social enterprise, so must be judged accordingly.
Christie-David, who grew up in Sydney taking curried lentil sandwiches to an otherwise Vegemite-only school, has talked his mum Shiranie into passing her family recipes on to the kitchen, headed by Colombo-born chef Chamara Pathiranage. It’s an easy menu from which to order, with its “short eats” as starters, and sections on curries, sides and sambols, with a fun option of kottu roti, street food that sees roti chopped and fried with vegetables, egg and curry gravy.
Pan rolls ($12 for two) are a hit, the crumbed and fried pancakes either stuffed with lamb and its marrow or with “superfood” (sweet potato and kale), lifted with a good belt of fenugreek.
The most talked-about, fusion-y dish is the “roti taco” ($12), a crisp round of roti topped with a small, whole fried soft-shell crab, spicy mayo and mango salsa, ready to fold in half and make a right mess of your shirt. It’s a must, depending on the sanctity of your shirt.
Goat curry sells out fast, so it’s the trad chicken curry for me ($18), rich with tempered onions, garlic and spices, the meat benefitting greatly for being cooked on the bone. Amma’s vegetable curry ($16) is lighter, combining cabbage, carrots, cauliflower potato, but too milky for my taste.
Amma’s dhal ($12) is heavenly, boosted with another tempered onion and spice mix and topped with fried curry leaves and roasted chillies, cooked so you still get the texture of the red split lentils against the creaminess. There’s a lot of care in this kitchen.
Curries go with hoppers, those gorgeous, lacy, crisp, fermented rice and coconut pancakes ($6). But then, they also go with saffron rice, studded with raisins and cashews ($6). Has to be both. And a pol sambol ($3) of toasty coconut and dried fish, to use as seasoning. No dessert menu is no problem, because duh, Enmore Road. It’s a stroll to Cow and the Moon for gelato or Hakiki for Turkish ice-cream.
What we eat is always more than what we eat, coloured by the wider context, the culture, the attitude, the purpose, the smiles, and the backstories. Colombo Social weaves it all together with good cooking and caring service that come with a big feel-good factor on the side. And hoppers, of course.