Exotic food at a Soho Sri Lankan restaurant
If Paradise was a restaurant, what would it look like? Possibly not a flyblown streetcorner in Soho opposite a pants shop. Perhaps the name is a knowing nod to the varied heavens in which Rupert Street used to specialise, or perhaps a learned allusion to Chekhov’s description of his journey around Asia in 1892, of which he recorded that he had found hell in Sakhalin and paradise in Ceylon?
Maybe the kitchen is just very confident, as well it might be, since Paradise Soho has been rated the best Sri Lankan restaurant in London since it opened in 2019.
The space has been rejigged since then and the restaurant is presently split between a long steel bar counter with stools and a row of crampy banquettes, reminiscent of those John Pawson interiors that were all over the place 20 years ago, poised and exquisitely refined so long as they were empty. On a sultry, crowded evening it was all a bit sweaty and uninviting but there is a single wooden table on a sliver of terrace outside, overlooking a photo frieze of sculpted men in tiny undergarments, so that was nice.
this food was so original and daring it made me want to book a ticket to Colombo
Paradise soho describes its cooking as “contemporary Sri Lankan”, with influences from Portugal, South India, Malaysia and Holland, and the menu is wonderfully exotic, as in strange, rare, surprising. I have a feeling that it’s no longer quite comme il faut to admit to being thrilled by unrecognisable food items, since you’re bound to be patronising someone — my ulundu-vadai is your beans on toast actually, you ignoramus — but not doing so is a nervy form of sophistication. I hadn’t tried kimbula banis, so I won’t pretend. (Ulundu-vadai, incidentally are soft fritters rather like doughnuts made from a ground black pulse related to the cowbean, not the lentil, as is apparently often assumed.
Kimbula banis are puffy crocodile- shaped buns. When I looked them up they were described as a popular childhood snack; having tried the Paradise version with green chilli custard, kithul glaze and date and lime chutney I realised I had a rubbish childhood).
Spice rules here, in myriad and surprising forms. The restaurant’s staple hit is mutton rolls, a silky tartare with coconut pickled chilli, shallot garlic and tomato emulsion and smoked charcoal oil. Especially for someone who usually loathes old sheep, they were a revelation — the spice lifting off the usual gamey linger of fat and extracting all the deep, savoury flavour from the meat.
Long aubergine with “rainforest jaggery moju” (unrefined sugar), turmeric, coconut vinegar and chilli travelled punchily across the palate, a hit of heat, a creamy aromatic, a sharp twist of sweetness, evolving and expanding with every bite.
Kiri-hodi is the coconut milk base of many Sri Lankan curries; I tried a version with crab, curry leaf and fenugreek which did taste a bit like the popular version of paradise, a whiff of earthy palm tree carried on a soft sea mist.
Plump Ceylonese-spiced prawns were joltingly, uncompromisingly searing, definitely not for the faint-hearted but with a sneaky subtlety that kept me coming back for more once I’d wiped away the tears.
Paradise’s take on the hopper, the lacey snowflake of pancake which forms the basis of many Sri Lankan dishes, involves a delightfully nestled egg from a very smart farm in Cornwall, crunchy and unctuous.
Since I don’t know anything about Sri Lankan cuisine I can’t comment on the extent to which the menu adheres to any other classic forms, but this food was so original and daring it made me want to book a ticket to Colombo.
Nonetheless, there’s something unconvincing about Paradise, a discord between the substance and the style. Maybe one should be grateful for a kitchen that doesn’t feel the need to tweak the food into Instagrammable tableaux, but for all the care with the ingredients the plates had a slopped-out look.
Inevitably, the menu is meant for sharing (ugh), and dishes bustle up when they are ready, which in effect destroys the careful harmonies of the spicing. There’s no space to savour or discriminate between the layers and contrasts which have been so carefully built up, the spices rush hectically together, resulting in an overall effect which is little more than a big mouthful of chilli.
Cocktails are the focus on the drinks list, rather than wine — which is fair enough if you’re the sort of person who wants a cocktail with your dinner. Prejudice aside, having the bartender tit about with milk-filtered tequila means that drinks appear individually at randomly-spaced intervals, though no one apart from me appeared to find this irritating.
One can hardly hold happy customers against a restaurant, but crammed conviviality doesn’t work for food this good , which deserves to be eaten without a stranger’s elbow in your plate. Our waitress was jolly and efficient, but the glasses were smeary and the table could have done with a wipe.
Paradise is by no means cheap, but it feels more like a canteen than a restaurant, with no flair or pace to the presentation or service. It could work in a balmier climate. In Soho it needs to try just a little bit harder.
Paradise Soho, 61 Rupert St, London W1D 7PW
This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
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