For many of the two million tourists who arrive in Sri Lanka each year, the country’s bustling capital city is an obstacle to be negotiated en route to the south coast’s beaches. Colombo has smartened up its act in recent years, though, and amply repays a night or two’s stay.
Should bustle turn to hassle, however, there is a splendid oasis just a hopper’s toss from the Indian Ocean. Stroll through the tranquil courtyards of The Gallery Café, past statues and lily ponds, order a cocktail and a bite to eat in the handsome outdoor dining space, and any urban angst will vanish with the first sip of a tamarind chilli Margarita.
The chap who built this glorious retreat knew a thing or two about design. It was the studio of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most celebrated architect and a pioneer of the “tropical modernism” school – before his death in 2003, he approved plans for its conversion into a gallery and restaurant.
Bawa’s architecture drew influences from both colonial and indigenous styles, as does The Gallery Café’s menu: there is an excellent black pork curry, served with rice, papadum, aubergine curry, cucumber salad and mallum: leafy greens with shredded coconut.
Then again, you might order a Thai-influenced grilled beef salad with shredded papaya som tam style, or indeed gazpacho, Caesar salad, baked crab or coq au vin: The Gallery Café’s eclectic menu is popular with locals and expats alike. Go for dinner, when hundreds of candles light the building and terraces, and save room for the jaggery crème brûlée.
My dinner companion was architect John Balmond, son of Cecil Balmond, the man who – with Anish Kapoor – designed the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London’s Olympic Park, as well as a host of other projects in a long and illustrious career. Balmond père et fils also collaborated on the Palagama Beach Hotel, a clutch of back-to-nature (but quietly luxurious) cabanas and villas on Sri Lanka’s west coast, run by John’s wife Larimon.
I ate very well there too. Sri Lankan cuisine excels at breakfast, and Palagama does it splendidly: lacy, crisp-edged hoppers cooked to order; coconut sambal stained pink with chilli; a comforting dhal; and a fish or vegetable curry with a gently spiced gravy, gloriously fragrant with fresh curry leaves.
For dinner, should you wish, a karahi-wielding chef will set up an alfresco kitchen and show you how to make a wonderfully spicy crab curry: take notes, or just sip a gin-and-tonic and admire. Dining at a candlelit table under the stars, on the fringe of Palagama’s majestic beach as the ocean laps at the shore, contentment is complete and resistance is futile.
Both The Gallery Café and the Palagama Beach Hotel are triumphs of tropical modernism, breaking down the artificial boundaries between indoor and outdoor, while the sense of inner peace they both promote is no accident: it is by design.