Uga Residence: Rare Redefined

How does a restaurant increase its covers by 2,500 percent in under six months? A new executive chef, new menu, and new target audience have opened up Rare, the once fine-dining-only restaurant in Colombo, and made its dull breakfast menu the new toast of the town.

The core ingredients that fuel Rare are Executive Chef Ganesh Raj’s hands-on approach (L) and General Manager Kalel Muzammil’s drive to innovate (R).

In April 2018, three years since Rare’s birth at Residence by Uga Escapes – an 11-suite boutique hotel in Colombo’s city centre – hotel management decided to transform Rare from an in-house restaurant to an independent brand. In May, General Manager Kaleel Muzammil set up an interview with a friend he had known for decades. Over a weekend, the management hired Chef Ganesh Raj, who had spent the last 20 years mastering his craft abroad to spearhead this new vision at home. Their first challenge was to transform the breakfast menu to the best and most affordable in Colombo. After four months of extensive groundwork and over 800 eggs later, Rare went from serving only 15 covers a month at breakfast to 300.

So why does a restaurant that has successfully championed the concept of fusion Sri Lankan cuisine for the past three years decide to transform their image?

“We want to move away from being seen as a fine dining restaurant and position ourselves as a sophisticated bistro,” says Muzammil, an experienced hotelier with a strong background in food and beverage. “We feel this is the way forward.” A firm believer in constantly evolving, the desire to cater to a wider clientele drove the change in direction.

Initially, Rare made a name for itself by introducing Sri Lankan fusion to Colombo’s fast-changing food arena. With dishes such as mutton soup with pumpkin curry infused with Ceylon arrack, toddy marinade barramundi and a personal favourite, seeni sambol and sprats ice cream, Rare has long been one of the top picks for lunch and dinner. Quality consistency in food and service has given the restaurant a loyal clientele that generates 65% of the hotel’s overall revenue.  As of February 2019, with 4.5 stars and the badge of ‘Certificate of Excellence for 2017-2018,’ Rare lists as 23rd out of 583 restaurants on TripAdvisor in Colombo.

“We want to move away from being seen as a fine dining restaurant and position ourselves as a sophisticated bistro”

A favourite of Colombo’s high-end diners including some of the top c-suites, guests are required to place a reservation at Rare for dinner from Thursday to Sunday and for lunch on weekdays. In spite of the restaurant’s growth in popularity over the years, it has always felt a bit closed off to the average diner, who may want to enjoy a monthly meal at such a renowned restaurant but feel too intimidated. Now the team, led by Muzammil and Raj, are determined to shift this image to make Rare accessible to more people while still maintaining its formal atmosphere for dinner. “We’ve been here for three years, it’s a difficult market, especially working with the top tier market of Colombo. If we weren’t doing it right, we wouldn’t have been here this long,” says Muzammil.

Spicy soft boiled eggs from Rare at Uga Resides breakfast menu

Part of the revised breakfast menu, these crispy soft-boiled eggs are coated in local spices and served with asparagus cream and toasted English muffins

Decorated in earthy shades and furnished with leather chairs, Rare had always exuded the ambience of a private supper club. But now, the table cloths have been folded away, uncovering the wooden tables. The waiting staff have swapped their formal black uniforms for more tropical, weather-friendly white linen. A more relaxed vibe welcomes people of all ages, particularly young adults and millennials who are active participants in Colombo’s culinary scene.

The decision to refocus the restaurant was based on much research into market and brand positioning. “If you don’t know who your market is and if you don’t evolve, you’re going to lose out on the clients you’ve made,” says Muzammil. It’s important to be aware of your target clientele’s disposable income, particularly in Colombo where numerous restaurants are competing for the select group of high-end customers. At the core of their transformation, Rare hopes to preserve their food philosophy of serving Sri Lankan fusion food and complement it with a casual yet sophisticated ambience.  After successfully transforming breakfast, they aim to launch new menus for lunch and dinner.

General Manager Kaleel Muzammil stands in the lobby of Uga Residences Colombo

 

Prior to becoming General Manager at Residence by Uga Escapes in 2015, Muzammil was involved in the food and beverage department at hotels including Marriott Marble Arch in London, The Fortress in Koggala, Al Bander Hotel and Resort in Bahrain, and Shangri-La Villingili Resort and Spa in the Maldives. Despite his easy-going, jolly demeanour, Muzammil is a self-confessed ‘numbers guy’ and is always up-to-date with Colombo’s culinary trends. He credits Dinesh De Zoysa, a Director of Uga Escapes, as his food and beverage guru, who constantly motivates him to evolve and is the reason behind his continued tenure at the hotel.

Raj started his career at Colombo’s first ever fine dining restaurant – Don Stanley’s – and trained under the head chef for two years while also working as a cleaner. “I topped the class and that was a nice moment,” reminisces Raj with genuine pride. After eight years of hard work, he left the establishment as a Chef de Partie and joined Colombo InterContinental. Then he received the opportunity to work at Al Ghalia Hospitality in Bahrain, where he met Muzammil. The ensuing friendship developed into a natural business partnership. After a turbulent year with multiple executive chefs, the partnership has come as a breath of fresh air. “I know his food and I know that there’s a lot of love in that plate so I knew he would be a good fit for us”, says Muzammil.

Both Muzammil and Raj are keen on serving the right kind of food that will entice their new target market of young adults as well as satisfy their existing clients. Striking the right balance between the old and the new requires a delicate approach, driven by research on what is hot and available in Colombo.  Says Muzammil, “When we do a concept change, I like to look at the bigger picture, not just the menu. I look at the ambience, uniform, and how dishes are described.” A transformation like this requires patience because getting “the taste, feel, and the structure of the dishes right takes around four to six months.”

Pastries from the breakfast menu at Rare at Uga Residences, Colombo

A selection of croissants, muffins and doughnuts available on the new breakfast menu.

Rare’s revised breakfast menu, featuring dishes such as Crispy eggs, Mannar crab, and Rare ‘Benni’ (eggs benedict), was launched in October 2018. The menu is Muzammil and Raj’s first joint project since the Executive Chef’s appointment. In five months, the restaurant’s breakfast sales have shot up 2,500 percent, confirming that their change in direction was a cracking success.

Raj is determined not to be stuck in ‘fine dining’ and wants to offer a wider selection of simple yet delicious items. His vision is for Rare to accommodate the fast-paced lifestyle of modern Colombo, “People don’t have time to enjoy food. We need to give them good quality, simple food, so that anybody can come and try it out.”

In order to consolidate the change in brand image, the restaurant has been renamed Rare Kitchen and Bar, separating its identity from Residence by Uga Escapes. It also maintains an active, independent presence on social media and the web. With over 2,000 followers and a mouthwatering Instagram feed, Rare Kitchen and Bar is speaking the foodie language of millennials and young adults.

As well as redesigning the lunch menu, the duo hopes to initiate several umbrella projects under the ‘Rare’ brand in the upcoming months. ‘Bring Rare Home’ – an outdoor catering concept – targets small private parties, where the chef comes in, designs a special menu for the event, and executes it with the help of his restaurant staff. ‘Simply Rare’, another idea in the pipeline, is for catering restaurant-quality dishes and platters for private events. They are also thinking about branching out into the food truck business, inspired by Raj’s time operating one in the Middle East.

Ganesh Raj Executive Chef, in the kitchen at Rare at Uga Residences, Colombo

 

Always looking out for ways to creatively up their game, Muzammil has introduced an improvement team to gather feedback from diners about the new menus. The team, consisting of waiters, supervisors, and captains, activates Muzammil’s philosophy that “Everybody’s input is valued, including the line staff because they know exactly what the client wants.” Before a new menu is introduced, they offer it to a few repeat clients whose opinion they trust and value in order to ensure that they are serving up a potential favourite.

Aside from the extensive planning, Muzammil and Raj’s unique collaboration forms the core of the restaurant’s transformation process. “Muzammil follows a certain standard and quality. If a dish is not interesting, he always encourages me to do change it or reinvent it. I have to meet him at that level and then automatically my staff has to follow me,” says Raj. “We’ve had many arguments” says Muzammil “but we’re constantly pushing each other to do better.” Raj’s hands-on approach and eye for detail complements Muzammil’s commitment to innovate. Combining the right ingredients, the pair seems to have the perfect recipe to dish up Rare’s new identity as a sophisticated bistro.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4