SINGAPORE — It’s hard to write about Kotuwa without resorting to feelings of romanticism. This is, after all, the It spot where all food connoisseurs gather to celebrate the darling of Singapore’s dining scene, chef Rishi Naleendra, who, after launching the successful Michelin-starred Cheek by Jowl and Cloudstreet, is now ready to embark on an exploration of cuisine nearer and dearer to his heart: Sri Lankan.
Reservations are hard to come by here at Kotuwa, Sinhalese for ‘fort’, and a moniker inspired by the Sri Lankan capital’s central business district. It was by a stroke of luck that I secured a dinner slot one month in advance, and that was after checking back several times over the tail end of 2020 into the opening strains of 2021.
Set within the lobby of Wanderlust hotel at Dickson Road, Kotuwa keeps things simple and refined through the use of dark wood table tops, rattan-backed chairs embracing a thin silhouette, large carpets that envelope much of the floor space in front, and two massive chandeliers that bathe the restaurant in a warm glow of ember. It’s all very “Bring back my girls” eleganza, and I am living.
All this beauty may cause you to be lulled into thinking that the menu is a beginner’s guide to Sri Lankan cuisine. This is not Kotuwa primary school for Sri Lankan food newbies, honey. This is a shrine to all things Colombo where spices are fierce, chillies audaciously used, and a slow, burning heat that creeps up on you is but the norm.
It starts with a quartet of perfectly spherical crab cutlets (S$16++), fried till the outside is a perfect shade of golden. Breaking open the mound, a bouquet of meaty goodness greets you before revealing shreds of lamb and small chunks of potatoes with a subtle undercurrent of tang. These are served with a sauce that’s incredibly and delightfully spiced. It also hits you at the back of your throat as an unsuspecting assault on the palette, so if you’re new to all things spice, I suggest a quick dip instead of a liberal dunk.
Lychee transforms from sweet and dainty to a monster of flavour with the Lychee Achcharu (S$8), which sees the unassuming fruit pickled in mustard, apple cider, and chillies. If you think that’s a lot of acidity in one dish, you are right. But what makes this bowl memorable is its balance of acidity, sourness, and natural sweetness that makes this achar greater than the sum of its parts.
I didn’t know what to expect when I ordered the Dallo Baduma (S$22++), a plate of crispy fried calamari tossed in chilli butter and curry leaves, so says the menu description. There’s a batter that hugs each piece of calamari which has since gone slightly soft after being tossed with the chilli butter, green chillies, and large onion peels. The batter also absorbs all the spiced goodness making this a perfect mid-day snack for some Netflix bingeing. Don’t shy away from having the green chillies whole—it’s not as spicy as you imagined. A slight heat, yes, but not overwhelmingly so.
From the Meats section, I had the Lamb Curry (S$24), the clear gold star of curries, if ever there was an award. Curries are judged on the robustness of their rempah, and here, it’s a joyful blend of sweet and savoury and a gaminess that veers on being comforting and familiar. I especially liked the touch of mint that helps balance out all this richness, not that I mind in the least bit. This is, after all, curry and respect must be paid.
You might be tempted to mop up all the curry and achar with a serving of white rice. That would be a waste of precious calories. Instead, go for the Egg and Plain hoppers (S$6++ and S$4++). This rice flour-basmati rice is like a savoury crepe with sides that rise dramatically to the occasion.
I’ve had many iterations of this, being a fan of the one eaten with red sugar, but this was the only one where the taste of coconut milk is so front and centre, bite after bite. The egg version comes topped with pepper and specks of salt. Can you guess what you get when salt and santan meet? Magic. That’s what you get. Magic.
Dinner concludes with a wedge of Wattalappam Tart (S$16) that is so good, even if you don't have a second stomach for dessert, I can't imagine anyone not polishing this plate clean. It's a creative spin on the traditional Wattalapam custard, a celebratory Sri Lankan dessert often prepared by the Muslim community in Sri Lanka at the end of Ramadhan.
Here it's made into a coconut custard jaggery tart, topped with chantilly cream, spiced with a touch of cardamom. It's a type of sweetness that doesn't impose on the mouthfeel, a dessert that is incredibly simple but works wonders as a sweet ending to the day. If this doesn't put a smile on your face and a spring in your step, I honestly don't know what else will.
Website | 21A Boon Tat St, Singapore 069620
Wed to Fri: 6pm – 10pm
Sat to Sun: 11am – 4pm; 6pm – 10pm
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