The Cinnamon Room
The Lighthouse Hotel, Galle
Reservations Telephone: +94-91-2223744
Geoffrey Bawa was some architect, I can tell you. The Lighthouse Hotel in Sri Lankan ‘up and coming’ tourist spot Galle was commissioned by Jetwing Hotels, a big Sri Lankan hotel and travel conglomerate, and Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous designer of brilliant spaces, went for it. It’s one of his last works, and certainly stands as one of his most impressive. You'll find the Lighthouse in many guides to uber-funky hotels and with reason, because Bawa has undoubtedly created something special here: cubism meets colonialism, clean lines and petal-strewn pools mix with rock-face walls in the most amazing way. The Lighthouse Hotel does, indeed, look and feel very, very special.
The steel, welded figures of Sinhalese warriors spiralling up from the lobby to the roof above as they fight immortally up and down the staircase are a strange and wonderful thing to see, a pleasant and tactile stroll up the stairs wondering if this is tasteful or disgusting, stunning or just tacky. The jury's still out, by the way.
But if you stay at the Lighthouse on the strength of those funky guide pictures, you'd be in danger of being romanced by the lens: the reality is a little faded, a little cracked and let down by years of indifferent maintenance. The room rate is impossibly high and awful value – stay at the Galle Fort if you want to stay somewhere great in Galle.
The sea-front decking area at the Lighthouse is an amazing place to sit for a drink, especially when the waves are up. The indoor area here is the Cardamom Café, effectively the hotel's coffee shop, where buffet meals are served. Most people eat here rather than in the hotel’s fine dining Cinnamon Room restaurant - we were to find out why.
Chris Ong, chef and partner at the simply brilliant Galle Fort Hotel, had told us not to eat there. He'd recommended we go there to take a look but not to eat. We misunderstood. We booked dinner at the Cinnamon Room.
Mohitos at the bar were great. And then we went into the dining room and were stunned, once again, by the visionary architecture of Geoffrey Bawa. It was like being in a period drama: a huge brass-fitted, wooden-panelled room, surrounded on three sides by ceiling height teak windows panelled with square panes of glass, all covered with white linen curtains. A stormy night outside meant plenty of atmosphere and billowing linen. The room was a colonial dream, set for a hundred diners and more, glittering tines and starched linen everywhere: truly dramatic, a splendorous and magical setting.
We were alone.
This is not a good sign. But we went ahead with our trip around the very expensive menu, fortified by Mohitos and the sheer wonder of the room we were in. And what a menu! Lobster bisque, tournedos Rossini, magret de canard, soufflés: the forgotten food of Larousse and old Michelin guides. This was classical food from the days before Graham Kerr got a Porterhouse Blue. This was going to be a treat!
I can honestly tell you that the food in the Cinnamon Room is never less than utterly disgusting. A canned bisque with gelid lumps came to the table and was left. This was followed by the magret de canard, a celebration of tough meat and Maggi sauce. When asked how I like my duck, I’ll tend to respond ‘as chef likes’. I wish to God I hadn’t. The duck was simply gross, a fatty little slab of something grey that could have been duck or kitten for all that you could taste. It, too, was uneaten. As was the majority of the tournedos Rossini that Sarah had ordered – how anybody could do that to a fillet steak is beyond me – it wasn’t even shaped like a fillet and was, like the duck, cremated to a uniform greyness and chemically de-flavoured using some form of powerful leaching agent.
This was fine dining indeed. It was so bad we started drinking heavily. There was no point complaining: this was beyond complaint. It was an insane juxtaposition: irredeemably awful food served in a luscious colonial dining room created for timeless romance by an architect of great genius.
The disgraceful main courses were followed by dessert. I had a soufflé that was utterly unrecognisable as such: a small, hardened lump of pale, flaccid snot served up on a plate. Like Sarah’s bread pudding (quite entirely unlike bread pudding), it totally defied any attempt to try and rationalise its description as a soufflé. Both were cleared up by the waiter virtually untouched. In fact, the entire meal had come out and then simply gone back. And the waiter didn’t bat an eyelid. He had obviously seen this happening before: seen the breathless anticipation of romantic couples turned into wide-eyed horror and revulsion and then a plunge into despair.
It was so bad, so very bad that we didn't even bother complaining. And, believe me, I have no problem complaining in restaurants. But this was, as Silvester Stallone said in the awful remake of Get Carter, taking it to another level. This was bad beyond redemption. We merely drank a lot, paid up and left.
Why didn’t we complain? Why didn’t we refuse to pay? I’m really not very sure. I’m not sure you can complain at that level: you're just going to be totally unpleasant to no end. The chef can’t have had any idea of what he was doing. And although you could, and I would at all times counsel this, refuse to pay, we just wanted to flee into the night and never come back at that point. We just wanted to put it in the past and look towards a brighter future unsullied by ever going near the place again.
Take my advice. Eat at the Galle Fort every night you’re there. Listen carefully to Chris Ong. He’s a good man and a great cook.