Much talked about chef, restauranteur and author Cynthia Shanmugalingam has now opened her debut restaurant Rambutan in Borough Market.  This in itself is something to celebrate: Cynthia is the first Sri Lankan Tamil woman to open a restaurant in central London – better still, within the City’s oldest, renowned food market.  Its setting is a wonderful opportunity for Rambutan: Borough Market is where tourists come to for a taste of “British food” and she’s embedding Sri Lankan Tamil cooking into that definition. 

Born in Coventry to Sri Lankan parents, Cynthia has spoken of her original embarrassment over what the family ate at home (“our food was too spicy and too weird for my friends“).  Luckily for us she’s now fully embraced her food heritage, taking inspiration from far and wide: whether the recipes of her aunts in Coventry or the Sri Lankan-based chefs and home cooks who have entrusted their own family secrets to her. And at Rambutan, using ingredients sourced from the local market.

With 60 covers over two floors, the restaurant takes over the space adjacent to Monmouth Coffee, Bao and Elliots and previously home to Konditer & Cook.  Cynthia describes the interior as “proudly post-colonial”, taking substantial inspiration from the legendary Minnette de Silva, who was one of the island’s foremost mid-century architects and instrumental in changing the built vernacular of Colombo after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.  The focus of the open kitchen is a warm open traditional fire aduppu stove of the sort found in the village kitchens of the Sri Lankan countryside.  This one, however, is enclosed by a green marble counter – a space reserved for those willing to risk not making a booking.  On that note, the wait can be long: 2 hours on my visit on a rainy evening.  Once you’re in, though, the dining room sees plenty of natural clay and concrete, tables and chairs made from sustainable teak, handmade ceramic tiles and one-of-a-kind-pieces commissioned by independent Sri Lankan designers.

Downstairs, there’s a dimply-lit bar providing a hideaway, with a menu of cocktails giving a starring role to spirits banned by colonial rule in Sri Lanka including mezcal, cachaca and Sri Lankan arrack.  

Like her cookbook the menu focuses on Cynthia’s Tamil roots, offering “heritage dishes with an immigrant twist”.  So expect plenty of fragrant pandan, green chilli, lemongrass, onions and curry leaves – though interestingly no hoppers! 

From the Snacks & Short Eats, we went for Devilled cashew nuts and plantain chips (£3.70) and Gundu dosas (£4.30).  The nuts were as spicy and toasted as you might hope – totally moreish.  The Gundu dosas, meanwhile, were a revelation.  Like mini-donughts, made from rice flour they have a dosa-like crispy exterior yet are melt-in-the-mouth inside.  Spiced with mustard seeds and chilli, they’re tender bites of pure joy, especially dipped into the vibrant green chutney served alongside.

As my two companions this evening were more than willing to try out all the Vegetables on offer, we ordered the whole suite.  First up came the Tempered turmeric potatoes with pandan (£7.70).  Deeply satisfying, these were probably the highlight dish of the evening (alongside the dosas).  Spicy, full of flavour and sourced from Borough Market, the plate represents what Rambutan do so well: showcasing the best of British produce through unusual twists on classic Sri Lankan recipes.

The curry, meanwhile, is a celebration of Red pineapple (£11.60).  Full of mustard seeds, the plate is a total surprise: the sweetness of the fruit well juxtaposed against the spicy gravy.  Very well-balanced.

The Flourish Farm purple broccoli varia (£10.30) and Carrot, yellow lime & coconut sambol (£6.20) function more as side-show salads.  The veggie of each dish is brightened and enriched by coconut and carefully tempered spices – mustard and cumin seeds.  Though it’s great to see coconut sambal being showcased in this way, both dishes were on the dry side and would benefit from a creamy yogurt to go with.

Rambutan tells an important story: that there’s more to Sri Lankan cuisine than rich curries and that this is a cuisine that’s evolving.  Though the menu doesn’t feature plates that you might expect – like hoppers, coconut-based curries and aubergine dishes (always a personal favourite) – it’s early days yet. It’s also great that Cynthia is showcasing Sri Lankan food in the heart of London – better still, within one of the city’s culinary hearts.  Whilst a staple in Rayner’s Lane, Harrow, Wembley, Tooting, and East Ham, the region’s cooking is yet to get the limelight in the newer crop of central London openings.  It’s great Cynthia is changing this and reminds us why London is such a great place: a melting pot of immigrant communities and an opportunity for displaced diaspora to celebrate and reinvent their traditions.

Rambutan, 10 Stoney St, London SE1 9AD

Website: https://www.rambutanlondon.com/

Rating: ***

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