The phone rings again, insistently this time. It doesn’t stand a chance. Our hands are dribbling in crab juice, fingers flecked with chilli and faces shiny. The table, once dressed to impress with OCD cutlery arrangements and origami orange napkins, is a wreck. Shells and heads and general detritus pile high in a dish. Lori is sucking flesh from a claw. The call can wait.
We’re in Sri Lanka’s capital for a few days of sorting out driving licenses and mountains of laundry whilst planning our impending tour around the country. Having said that, we’re in the big smoke, so we should go and see the sights, right? Well, kind of. Colombo is a funny fish. It’s pretty rare these days to find a capital city that even Google struggles to find many positives for. But here we are. A search brings up some the national museums and some shopping malls, and even our extensive research has ground to a halt after visiting the usual suspects.
So we do what any sane person would do. We screw the budget, put on our most civilised clothes on and go to lunch. The Ministry of Crab is in the beautiful, calm and ever so tasteful surroundings of the Old Dutch Hospital, a building dating from 1681 but restored in 2011 and brought back to life as a chic shopping precinct. Sitting comfortably on the San Pellegrino list of Asia’s best restaurants, this, finally, is food to shout about.
The place is impeccable, all dark wood and high ceilings, tangerine linen and attentive staff. Founded by cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, it’s the antithesis of the gaudy ego-trips that usually characterise a celebrity restaurant. The whole place is branded thoughtfully, complete with crab-based declaration, constitution and amendments. The founders wanted to reclaim the iconic dish of chilli crab for Sri Lanka, the homeland they share with these crustaceans. And with the help of chef Dharshan Munidasa, we can safely say they’ve succeeded.
Here, you choose your crab size, ranging from the diminutive 500g specimens right through to the 2kg ‘Crabzilla’, then decide how to treat it. You can choose the classic chilli version, or have it buttered and chilled, baked, peppered or in an avocado salad. Either way, from its oceanside vantage point, you can be sure you’re eating at one of the lowest food-mile restaurants in the world.
The medium garlic and chilli crab was an odyssey. Armed with pliers and bibs, Lori worked hard to get every shred of meat from the shell, but I’m pretty sure that just made it taste even better. The fresh flesh more than stood its ground in the face of some pretty stiff competition from the heat and spice. And God, it was good.
A prawn bisque was quite unlike the soothing French creams we’re used to. This one was full of firepower and fragrance, a giant prawn rising out of it like a gourmet sea monster.
The garlic toast was a slab of their signature traditional wood-fired Sri Lankan Kade bread, first painted with a potent garlic butter and then chargrilled. Rice, gently spiked with leek, was just interesting enough while still providing the bland starch needed by us Western weaklings to counteract the chilli. Kankun wasn’t the party hellhole of Mexico but Sri Lanka’s native spinach, a wilted pile of iron-tanged health, much needed in the land of rice and curry. We always love finding the local greens wherever we go, from Italian friarielli to Greek horta. They’re always good and these are no exception. Olivia was less keen, but hey ho, you can’t have everything.
We were looking forward to a nice cold overpriced drink with our splurge lunch, but apparently they weren’t serving alcohol when we were there. We reluctantly opted for an underwhelming-sounding iced tea soda, but it turned out to be better than any cocktail we could have ordered.
We’re lucky that our daughter has a thing for prawns (she’s been known to down a pint of them at the age of two), so she was happy with a pile in a moreish soy butter emulsion, but this isn’t hugely kid-friendly fare. Our baby, for example, was left mumbling in his buggy for fear of covering him head to toe in crab and chilli. No, this is proper grown-up cooking. Expensive, memorable and messy, it was worth every rupee and every stain. And that, really, is all we want from a meal. So go, eat, enjoy. Just don’t forget to put your phone on silent.
Ministry of Crab
No 04, Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo 01
Open daily for lunch 11.30 am to 03.30 pm, dinner 05.00 pm to 11.00 pm
Tel: +94 11 234 CRAB - +94 11 234 2722