Crustaceans, with a little cricket

If you wander into Colombo's old Dutch Hospital complex, you could find Mahela and Sanga tucking into crab, and other revellers having a noisy evening out

Royston Ellis

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The Ministry of Crab restaurant, partly owned by Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Colombo
Get stuck in with your fingers at the Ministry of Crab © Royston Ellis
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If the thought of eating out at in a hospital complex while in Colombo doesn't seem very appealing, think again. Colombo's conventional nightlife has been knocked for six with the opening of an old Dutch hospital building as a restaurant and bar complex, with a couple of souvenir shops and a spa thrown in, in the shadow of Colombo's World Trade Center and the Hilton and Galadari Hotels.

Two of the three partners behind Colombo's newest dining venue at the Dutch Hospital complex are the former and present Sri Lanka captains, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Their restaurant is called Ministry of Crab (Tel: 94-11-234-2722) and is run in partnership with their friend, the renowned Sri Lankan/Japanese restaurateur Darshan Munidasa.

Munidasa, who started the Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi in Colombo in 1995, says: "Kumar and Mahela used to come regularly to Nihonbashi, and showed a great interest in food preparation and presentation. When I told them of my idea of starting a restaurant concentrating on serving the finest Sri Lankan crab, they both wanted to be part of it."

Munidasa explains that the two cricketers have not just lent their names to the Ministry of Crab restaurant; they are "crabinet" ministers. "When we were deciding who should be chairman of the company," says Munidasa, "I invited them to toss a coin for it, as they would at the start of a cricket match. Mahela won, and he has to sign orders, pay sheets, etc, if I am unavailable. They have a say in everything and often eat at the restaurant with their team-mates and visiting cricketers."

Munidasa says that the crabs, which are delivered fresh every day from lagoons in Sri Lanka's north west and north east, are kept live in a tank at the back of the open kitchen and guests are welcome to view their dinner before it's cooked. .

The restaurant concentrates on crab creations (with pepper, chilli, butter, garlic or curry), with the price based on size, ranging from Rs 1800 to Rs 4900. Prawn dishes, and Mahela's own favourite, chicken curry rice (served with Japanese sticky rice, pol sambol and fried egg), are also available. Veuve Clicquot is the house champagne and there is a short list, presented in an empty bottle, of good wines.

Bibs are provided for diners, who are encouraged to tuck in using their fingers. Even the water in the finger bowls at the end of the meal is a Sri Lankan creation: it is actually cold tea, to cleanse the oiliness from the fingers, mixed with veniwelgeta, a Sri Lankan herbal disinfectant, and garnished with iramusu flowers for fragrance.

The Ministry of Crab is open every evening, except on Poya (full moon) days, and is housed in the northern wing of the hospital in Colombo Fort. Dating back to 1677, the building is among the oldest in Colombo, and its former wards and barracks, around two courtyards, have been converted with care to preserve its historical features. The Ministry of Crab has kept all the original design features intact, including the high-beamed ceiling, wooden shutters and the flagstone floor.

The World Trade Centre overlooks the courtyard of the old Dutch Hospital, Colombo
The World Trade Centre overlooks the courtyard of the old Dutch Hospital © Royston Ellis
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The roadside entrance to the complex and the inner and outer courtyards have tables packed with revellers every night. Apart from the Ministry of Crab, there are four other restaurants that overlook the inner courtyard, and the popular Brewery By O (Tel: 94-11-243-6462) is in the back courtyard.

Semondu (Tel: 94-11-244-1590), at the entrance to the courtyard, is open for lunch and dinner and is run by Sri Lankan Airlines, serving menus based on in-flight cuisine and presented on a tray. Wine and beer are available at a counter with a view of the kitchen. Opposite is WIP, short for Work In Progress, (Tel: 94-11-244-1275) a café/restaurant run by the Colombo Hilton Hotel, which also has small cocktail bar.

Across the courtyard, Harpo's Colombo Fort Café (Tel: 94-11-243-4946) specialises in pub grub and cocktails in an informal atmosphere with cricket videos playing on a large screen. Next door to it, the ambience is more sophisticated, with smaller screens showing cricket videos, plush sofas for enjoying cocktails, bottle beers, spirits, wines, tea and dessert, in the Heladiv Tea Club (Tel: 94-11-575-3377). It's the perfect bar in which to end a convivial evening of wining and dining therapy (and cricketer-spotting) in the unlikely setting of Colombo's old Dutch Hospital.

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