Text and pix by Madushka Balasuriya
When you settle on LAB as an acronym for a bar, it’s inevitable that a certain expectation comes with it. However the Colombo Hilton’s newly-revamped LAB Lounge and Bar with its extensive range of cocktails – traditional as well as experimental – vast array of wines, and soulful live jazz, manages to meet and, in certain aspects, exceed these expectations.
As part of the first phase of Hilton’s refurbishment plan, LAB sees the entire lobby reimagined with an abstract ‘Urban Park’ theme focusing on Sri Lankan rainforests. Metallic sculptures of animals are furnished throughout the lounge area where plush sofas and armchairs monopolise your attention.
The giant wooden wall sculptures either side, flanking the lounging guests, bring to mind a passing golden cloud, while straight ahead are windows overlooking the lotus pond. Massive contoured pillars reminiscent of the great trees of the rainforest reach up into the lobby’s high ceiling to complete the experience.
Around one of these pillars is where the bar is located, snaking its way around the giant construct as it overlooks the lounge. As we began our evening my dining companion and I order the Fleed Mexican Water and Spices By Nature, two of LAB’s many in-house concocted cocktails.
The Fleed Mexican Water was comprised of fresh coriander and cinnamon boosted with medium body tequila, rounded with Elderflower and a dash of sparkling – the drink is most definitely an acquired taste, as those wanting a traditionally ‘tasty’ cocktail will be left disappointed. However the combination of coriander, cinnamon and elderflower gives it the taste almost of a detox water (of which LAB offers many varieties) – airy and refreshing – while the tequila adds a subtle yet noticeable punch.
The Spices By Nature, meanwhile, was definitely more on the nose when it came to its flavour profile. Oven-cooked pineapple and selected spices were muddled together with bourbon and a hint of vanilla liqueur, all of which were then shaken and served with a star anise. The combination of the star anise and pineapple offered an unusual yet complimentary sweetness to the bourbon.
Moving on to the food, we started with a classic, the Highland Tomato; a roasted Roma Tomato soup with basil, olive oil and croutons. The first thing that strikes you is how appetising it all looks, especially for a dish so simple. This is helped by the fact that all the soups are poured into bowls in front of your eyes before serving, allowing a discerning diner to appreciate the texture of the dish before it has had the chance to penetrate any of the other senses.
The main risk you run when making a tomato soup is that the tomato flavour will be too overwhelming, but it isn’t an issue here, with the flavours from the tomato, basil and olive oil dovetailing exquisitely, while the crouton adds just enough crunch and counters some of the acidity.
Next up was the Tod Man Pla, a Thai-style fish cake with red curry paste, cucumber and sweet chilli dipping sauce. Fish cakes have never been a personal favourite, but on the recommendation of Executive Chef Kazi Hassan, we gave it a go. The cakes, beautifully marinated in the red curry paste creating an ideal blend of sweet and spice, were tender and packed full of flavour. But the real star of the show proved to be the sweet chill dipping sauce. In case the spice was too much for your liking, the cucumber slices offered a refreshing reprieve.
Finally from the starters we tried the Seafood Frito Misto, a dish filled with battered prawn, calamari and fish. The assortment of seafood was accompanied by lemon basil aioli and chilli jam. I prefer my batter fried seafood to be airy on the inside with a slight gap between the batter and meat – this was perfectly executed. Soft inside, crispy outside, nothing to fault except for maybe the chilli jam – we didn’t like how it complemented the overall dish. The aioli however was on point.
Chef Kazi prides himself on the fresh produce that his restaurants acquire and this was on full display when we tried the salads. The salad list itself is quite varied – much like the entire menu – with seven types on offer. We first tried the cheapest one, the Market Salad, but don’t let the price tag fool you.
The mixed market greens, radish, carrot, cucumber and tomato were tied together delightfully by the toasted sesame dressing that was judiciously lathered over the salad along with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds. The flavours the dish exhibited, I dare say, would have made the staunchest meat-lover consider a vegetarian diet, and it had us craving the dish several days later.
Portion size was also a definite plus when it came to the salads, and our second tasting exemplified that notion. The Chicken & Black Eye Bean Salad as the name suggests consisted of chicken and black eye beans, along with grape tomato, avocado, cucumber, roasted beets, grilled vegetables and a soft boiled egg. This dish was a tour de force in how to make a salad an entire meal, as the variety of elements exploded on the palate with its alternating flavours and textures.
We tried three very different mains: a sandwich, a seafood pizza, and a Thai set meal. To start off we had the sandwich, a croque monsieur – quintessentially a ham and cheese sandwich, but either baked or fried, the trademark of which is that there is a layer of béchamel and cheese on the top slice of bread.
Chef Kazi forewent the extravagance of placing the cheese on the outside and instead chose to go for a classic sandwich structure – condiments and meat on the inside – however he added his own twist in the pickles. Being aware that pickles are most definitely a ‘love it or hate it’ item, it was served separately, offering a pleasant crunch factor as well acidic punch to contrast with the honey roasted ham and cheese. Overall a very respectable, and delicious, take on a French classic.
Next up was the Frutti Di Mare, a seafood pizza consisting of prawns, squid, mussels, basil pesto, bell peppers and rustic tomato sauce. Considering it was a thin crust pizza, the toppings were extremely generous. None of the meats overpowered each other, with a taste of each inexplicably present in every bite. The dough, meanwhile, remained light but filling. On the whole one of the better seafood pizzas in Colombo.
Finally we stumped for the Chef’s Signature Thai Set, fully loaded with fried chicken, an omelette, chicken satays, Jasmine rice and a signature sauce. The portion size must be commended again – the rice could easily feed two. The rice was packed with flavour, however be warned the chicken is quite spicy/peppery and at times threatened to overpower the dish. The satays, meanwhile, were juicy and went well with the signature sauce (even though I do tend to be partial to a peanut sauce with my satays).
To end our marathon dining session Chef Kazi sent three separate desserts our way.
The Ceylon Coffee & Chocolate tart consisted of a rich chocolate cream filled with a consequential but non-overpowering amount of coffee cream. The base and crust meanwhile was made of well-granulated biscuit and sponge adding some much-needed variance in texture, but the real masterstroke was the whipped cream. The cream was light and moist, managing to counter the slight dryness of the outer sponge, so it could have done with a bit more.
The Ovaltine Kulfi was the most surprising of the three dishes. Kulfi is usually associated with the creamy home-made Indian ice cream, this was however a long bar of rich, creamy, Ovaltine and chocolate served on a thin grid of tempered chocolate. The accompanying as advertised were caramelised banana and salted caramel popcorn topped with a Jivara milk chocolate sauce, yet when the plate arrived there was also two dollops of what can only be described as milk-flavoured ice cream, along with minuscule servings of a sour jelly, as well as a variety of other crunchy elements. The end result was a dish geared towards helping you eat the entire giant Ovaltine log without ever feeling too overwhelmed by its sheer richness.
Finally we come to the Pistachio Charlotte, arguably my favourite desert. In the menu it is described as ‘Dacquoise Pistachio & Raspberry Panna Cotta, with an Almond Crumble and a Mango Crème Anglaise’. What that translates to is a raspberry panna cotta perched atop of spongy pistachio base, alongside a scattering of almond crumble and a light mango cream.
The dish as a whole was delightfully refreshing, with the coolness of the panna cotta and tang of the raspberry a real highlight. However there was a tendency for the dryness of the pistachio sponge base to take away from this, but that’s where the mango cream came into play. The only criticism of the mango anglaise is that there wasn’t enough of it, as forcing me to ration it to last until the final bite was a small crime. Nevertheless, the lightness of the panna cotta and airiness of the mango ensured that this desert was the ideal way to end any dining experience.
With several competitors popping up around Galle Face and the rest of Colombo, a proud brand such as the Hilton knew it needed to step up in order to stay relevant. The refurbishment work they have done thus far, LAB’s extensive range of cocktails and talented staff both behind and around the bar illustrate that they are taking their competition seriously, and with LAB they have a genuine contender when it comes to offering a unique dining and lounging experience.