Photo courtesy of Rambutan

The One Who Keeps the BookLondon

What To Expect at Rambutan, London’s Buzziest Sri Lankan Restaurant


Following the publication of her acclaimed Sri Lankan cookbook of the same name, chef Cynthia Shanmugalingam premiered her first restaurant Rambutanto universal acclaim. Situated in the heart of Borough Market, this recent addition to the neighbourhood showcases the breadth of Sri Lankan diaspora cooking via plates like playful gundu dosas with bright coriander chutney and luscious chicken Pongal rice.

Rambutan’s menu draws from Shanmugalingam’s Tamil roots – offering inspired regional dishes, cooked over fire in the restaurant’s open kitchen. One of these dishes is Jaffna’s famed northern-style curry crab, which Shanmugalingam and her team will be offering as part of an exclusive feasting menu with all of the trimmings and accoutrements on Sunday 4th June.

The much-anticipated opening of Shanmugaligam’s debut restaurant has drawn in busy crowds, with dynamic flavours packed in each dish, and can be a tough get at the busiest times. We chatted to Shanmugalingam herself on how to get in, what to order when you arrive, and how to get the most out of a visit.

How long has it been since you opened Rambutan?

8 weeks [19th May] Friday!

How many seats does the restaurant have?


When do reservations drop on Resy?

They drop on the first day we open, 60 days rolling.

Do you keep aside tables for walk-ins? If so, what’s the best time to try on a busy night?

Yes, always. We always keep the counter for walk-ins. In the day, some bigger tables also. At dinner, you can’t book for two — all our tables for two are for walk-ins only.

Probably I would say earlier in the night like before say 6:30, like 5:30pm or 6pm would be the best. And then later would also be good, like 9-9:30.

For someone who’s never been to the restaurant, what are the must-try dishes?

Devilled cashew nuts and plantain chips – they’re on every bar in Colombo, very spicy and salty and crunchy. Also, gundu dosas – it’s like a little ball of fermented lentil and rice and it comes with a delicious green chilli and coriander chutney.

The lamb ribs are really delicious – we have a big charcoal fried grill and the lamb ribs are slowly rendered over the grill so they are charred, spicy and fatty. There’s a delicious red pineapple curry with mustard seeds – Sri Lankan curry has a lot of fruit and it’s really, really good.

And then the mussels are very fragrant. Our mussels are from Cornwall and they come very. very fresh, We cook them with coconut milk, lemongrass, turmeric and whole spices, broccoli greens. They’re the best of Sri Lankan food – light, fragrant and very delicious.

How long is your Notify list on any given night?

If people do come early, we can always take their number and text them and they often have a drink somewhere in the market like a pub or a bar.

[The wait] can vary between 30 minutes to 2 hours or an hour and 45 minutes.

What do you think keeps the restaurant packed each night?

I mean, we’ve been lucky – people seem to like the vibe and the décor at the restaurant. It’s really high ceilings, lots of plants, you can see all the chefs at work which you often don’t get really see with cooking from Sri Lankan or our neighbouring countries. It’s amazing to see them at work.

I think we’re the only Sri Lankan restaurant in London outside of Soho – I think we’re something new in the area. And lots of people are giving lots of love and saying lovely things about the food so I hope that’s the main reason.

On a Friday night, Sade should be playing. — Cynthia Shanmugalingam

What’s the vibe like on a Friday night? What music is playing? What’s the crowd like?

On a Friday night, Sade should be playing.

It should be getting very buzzy and vibrant, the place starts to fill up 5:30 to 6:00. By then you are going to see the whole place full – it should be a great crew on, it should be a fun time. There are these huge windows where people sit out and look out to the market where it would be winding down but you can still see people bustling around.

The crowd [includes] people who live in and around the area, locals. There are people who finish work and they’re coming by for a drink. There are also younger couples on a date or have something to celebrate. There are a few larger tables of groups of friends out to have a fun night. Also, there were some tourists last Friday night — a couple from New York, a couple from Mumbai.

Which is your favourite table? Can people request specific tables?

I would say I really like to sit at the back of the restaurant, on the ground floor where you’re surrounded by these pink clay walls and you can see straight down the whole of the restaurant. So I really love to sit at the back because you can take in everything that’s happening around you.

It’s a little tricky to move stuff around – we do our absolute best to give people what they’re asking for. Sometimes people want to be downstairs by the bar where it’s a little bit more intimate and sometimes people want to sit at the bar if they are on a date and want that kind of space.

I’m always surprised because I love to sit at the counter to watch the chefs but some people don’t want to do that, so I guess that’s not for everybody. Sometimes people want to switch between their booked table and the counter.

Finally, any tips or tricks for getting a table during the busiest periods?

Come early or come late. If you come down, we will always try and squeeze you in. If you’re a table of two or one, we can almost always squeeze you in especially if you don’t mind coming for a shorter time like an hour or an hour and fifteen. If you’re flexible about where you want to sit and what kind of table, that’s also helpful because we can also be a bit more flexible.

Rambutan will be serving a special Jaffna curry crab feast on June 4th, as part of Resy Drop Week. Book your tickets here.

Juli Suazo is a freelance writer based in London.