Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Mount Lavinia Hotel, Colombo

Built in the early years of the C19th as the British governor's residence, extensively rebuilt in the 1820s and used in the Second World War as a British military hospital, the Mount Lavinia is a stunning colonial building wrapped around a beautiful small beach. It's all teak and brass, white walls and colonnades. It is without a doubt one of the most impressive colonial buildings you'll come across in Sri Lanka - a country with a rich stockpile of amazing colonial buildings (the Galle Fort Hotel is one such - and an excellent hotel to boot).

It's also thoroughly neglected.

The evening we arrived, the hotel reception and bar areas were liberally provided with a collection of buckets, from coloured plastic pails through to white plastic tubs, and soggy towels. The bar area was shut because of the water. There had been rain that day, we were told.

Bring a bucket for monsieur! 

And I'll chuck in a free signed copy of Beirut - An Explosive Thriller 
to the first commenter who identifies the film that quote comes from.

Sri Lanka gets a lot of rain in general - and Colombo's wettest average month is October when the city gets something in the range of 300ml of rainfall. London in the same month could expect perhaps 70ml. So rain is hardly a surprise, is it? And if you're going to dot your five star 'breathtaking colonial experience' reception with buckets, couldn't they at least be brass or branded? Paint tubs are hardly de-rigeur.

Our room was old and dowdy, the ancient green patterned carpet was stained. The sheets were also stained, something I regard with mild horror in hotels, no matter how washed those sheets have been. There were no bathrobes or slippers, although there were tea and coffee facilities and a minibar. The vintage AC worked. The bathroom was old but clean and functional. The balcony, overlooking the palm-lined beach and giving a view across to the main hotel restaurant and terrace areas, was a place of sublime and magical beauty. The stormy evening added to the sheer gloriousness of it all.

Although shuttered by the rain, the bar off reception was open for business. The seating in the bar area is strange, more suited to being a waiting area for reception than a bar. It certainly lacked any romanticism or link to the hotel's much-touted colonial heritage. Large blue sofas around chunky coffee tables are more suited to large groups than romantically inclined couples and the service was slow.

The bar area, as many of the hotel's other surfaces, was dotted with palm shoots in terracotta trays. These, we were informed in a leaflet, were part of an earth day project to 'give back to the community we gain so much from'. The hotel buys the seeds, plants them until they sprout then gives them back to the community the seeds come from so they can plant them along the river banks. Quite mystifying, really, sort of greenwash without a point.

Escaping the drip of water into plastic buckets and the frigid AC in the lobby bar, we went upstairs to eat, only to find the only choice in town was the Indian theme night at the hotel's gorgeously Victorian Governor's Restaurant. We stayed at the Mount Lavinia because of the food - the executive chef here, Chef (Dr) Publis Silva, has published a number of popular Sri Lankan cookbooks. So we were looking forward to a lively menu of Sri Lankan specialties rushing out of a bustling, world-class kitchen. This, we fast found out, was not going to happen.

Meeting cookbook author and Mount Lavinia's executive chef, 
the engagingly eccentric and 78 year-old Chef (Dr) Publis Silva. 
That's a story for another day but it was a strange, 
strange encounter in which he promptly sold me a cookbook.

The Mount Lavinia really only has Governor's Restaurant - although its website talks about seafood cove (open air dining on the beach) and the terrace (open air dining at the poolside), there is really only one restaurant as such. Especially when it rains, which it does quite a bit in Colombo - as we have already discussed. Governor's has an open air area and closed, air-conditioned area. There is an รก la carte menu, which is a pretty standard walk through coffee shop fare the world around. And there is a buffet - offering, on the night we were there, the delights of India. There was also a smaller area of Sri Lankan food on offer.

We'd been looking forward to fine Sri Lankan food flung together by the best in the business. What we got was a fight for a table (reception had told us not to bother booking, we could just rock up. Rocking up, we were told all tables were reserved. A short, taut conversation later we had a miraculous table appear) in the restaurant's enclosed area.

And what an area. It's a Victorian tea-room, white pillars reaching up to the far ceiling, panelled teak windows all around. It reminded me of the achingly beautiful Cinnamon Room at Galle's Lighthouse Hotel and, for all I know, this room could have inspired architect Geoffrey Bawa to build that very lovely (and hopelessly bad) restaurant.

The buffet was, well, lazy. There were two dishes of each salad on the salad buffet, one in front and the one behind a repeat in case the front dish ran out. Nothing stood out, it was the usual melange of seafood in dressing, green salad, beef in vinaigrette and the like. The hot Indian food (not really matched up with Indian starters to any great extent we could see) was a standard rolling out of Northern staples - chicken makhani, dal makhani and the like.

The Sri Lankan food suffered from being piled up in large containers, slowly steaming away for hours and becoming tough and dull in the process, rather than being cooked in small batches and frequently refreshed. A black pepper mutton was spicy, hot and tough, the beef was also tough. The fish curry was tasty, but the fish flaky and dry. A lotus root and yam curry was overcooked by the time we reached it. The hoppers were cooked live and were stunning, light and crispy with a soft heart - and served with a rich onion sambal that wasn't as hot as most you'll find on offer with hoppers. These were the best we've ever had but, tellingly, they were the only things on the whole buffet that were freshly made.

The desserts were awful. Tiramisu is made from mascarpone cheese and egg yolks, 'lady finger' sponge dipped in coffee or, better, liqueur- not Polyfilla-like imitation cream and chocolate sponge. Many of the other desserts defy description. The 'creme brulee' was floury, tasteless and the sugar topping was soggy.

The service was pretty much as bad as you'd get. With absolutely no food knowledge on offer, the waiters were disorganised and appeared to be randomly assigned. Getting any request met was down to spending minutes on end waving your hands and crying out at them as they ran past avoiding eye contact with any of the tables. The whole wearying thing cost twice as much as dinners in other hotels we'd stayed at during our trip.

We left the Mount Lavinia totally perplexed at how you could make so little from so much. it's lazy, there's no other way to put it. There is every reason to invest in this hotel, to re-evaluate the limited facilities and shabby furnishings and come up with something truly outstanding that delights and inspires - a hotel that lives up to the standards and expectations of that rich colonial history. It's a beautiful building, but the colonial heritage schtick doesn't go deeper than the structural level. Everything else is just bleh. As it is right now we wouldn't go back if you paid us. We just thought it was all such a terrible shame.
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Unknown said...

Meaning of life: the autumn year

Unknown said...

:) thanks to google...
BTW I discovered that most colombo is an old British colony left as is

Alexander said...

I wouldn't have given Google the credit, 'cos that's sort of cheating, but a deal's a deal and that copy of Beirut is yours for the taking - just let me know how, when, where you want it left/dropped in Dubai or mailed elsewhere!

It was Mr Creosote, of course. You might like to avoid watching the scene itself, but it still makes me cry laughing...

Sahar Naja M said...

I was just teasing you, I already have a copy, but if you will be so generous to get me another one then I will take it this Saturday the 2nd in the venue :) Thank you

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