13 December 2022: Paradise - Curry nirvana
Christmas is coming,
and I am getting fat,
time to have another curry,
and a Sri Lankan one at that.
Yes, it's that time of year again, and another excuse for a nice meal out. As is now tradition, myself and two blog veterans - Krishen and Joe - have our 'Jens Lemon Shandy' WhatsApp group, Christmas curry. Paradise in Soho had been on my hit list for a while so I booked a table for three for our celebrations this year.
With booking times at a premium I chose the 6pm slot with half an eye on the World Cup semi-final starting at 7pm afterwards. Unfortunately, my co-eaters proved unreliable, prioritising work commitments over social punctuality, leaving muggins here to hold our reservation or risk losing it and invoking cancellation fees.
Some heroes don't wear capes.
Fortunately, a lager and the menu kept me busy, as I ordered all the dishes for the three of us. And, luckily for them, the two latecomers arrived just as the first plates were set down in front of me. They looked good, and we were ready to eat.
Three wise men and waiters bearing curry gifts - sounds like Christmas in Paradise to me.
I've been to Sri Lanka and in places it is close to paradise. Whether a sunset on Mirissa Beach or a mountain view in Ella, it's a beautiful country, rich in the colours of nature. But there is no sand,sea, and sky here; instead a brutalist interior of grey concrete forms a rather austere canvas to proceedings. This is chic, contemporary Sri Lankan dining in the heart of foodie Soho, with mood lighting to boot. Indeed, there is very little in the way of decoration inside Paradise. Apart from some greenery in an elevated, private booth at the back, the imposing grey is offset only by beige padded seats and the brown wood of the fans and beams above. In general, this is a small and cosy venue, with low hanging lighting creating a warm and intimate atmosphere, despite the cold hard concrete. We were seated at the bar in slightly less comfort than the three or four tables along the wall - so I would advise specifying preference upon booking. But this was the only real gripe of an otherwise unique and stylish space.
Starters and sides
Slow-braised native breed pigs head cutlets, pear and tamarind ketchup
Grilled Ceylonese-spiced prawns, seaweed butter, mango chutney
Hand-chopped raw aged beef kokis, green chilli, chives, cured St. Ewe’s egg yolk
3 X Hand-stretched lamb fat infused paratha rotis:
Country-style muthu samba rice
The starters and sides here are more than a mouthful. As you can see, the descriptive names of the limited but varied menu options here are long, but this just foretells of the detail in the dishes on offer. We had three of the four smaller dishes to kick things off: the pigs head cutlets, grilled prawns and beef kokis; and they didn't disappoint.
The cutlets were stout breaded croquettes of slow-cooked pulled pork on a beautifully tangy and sweet tamarind sauce. A bed of pickled, red onion slices added a nice accompaniment, but it was the wonderful combination of the sugary-sweet ketchup, crispy curry leaf garnish, and shredded pork that made these a delectable bite.
Alongside the cutlets were two whole chargrilled prawns that we were encouraged to eat whole (yes, shell and all). The crustacean crunch was a first for me, but was said to provide the richest flavour, and the smokey goodness of the grill certainly came through. The contribution of the seaweed butter and mango chutney sauce wasn't quite as evident, and we've had better prawns in Soho this year (Kolamba and Gunpowder), but nevertheless these were enjoyable and competitively priced.
The third starter was a take on steak tartare, albeit sat upon a kokis - a deep-fried, crispy Sri Lankan pastry of sorts, made from rice flour and coconut milk. This crunchy little number packed a range of textures as well as a quite firey punch from green chilli slices amidst its raw beef and egg yolk depths.
All three dishes had a contemporary feel but with a distinct Sri Lankan edge. Likewise, the hand-stretched roti that we had with the mains were elevated above the average with an infusion of lamb fat providing a meaty/marrowy finish.
All told, it was an impressive showing from the Starters and Sides, and an 8/10 to go with it.
Fried long aubergine and jaggery moju, turmeric, chilli
Seared whey-brined Leicestershire paneer, chervil and coriander chutney, grass-fed ghee temper
Grilled dry-aged rump steak, Jaffna spiced veal bone-marrow curry, Ceylon arrack
Seared hand-dived Orkney king scallops and Devon crab kiri-hodi curry, rambutan acharu, grains
Pan-roasted wild halibut, coastal-style red curry, coal roasted tomato, chilli, langoustine oil, leeks
Incredibly, the five main dishes we chose were a step up again from the excellent starters. Again, a mix of British ingredients and Sri Lankan flavours tingled our tastebuds in a range of beautifully presented plates.
The least exciting of the five was probably the long aubergine, a cold pickled vegetable dish known as 'wambatu moju' in Sri Lankan. Akin to a relish, its vinegary and jaggery infused 'brinjal' aubergine nonetheless offered something a little different, even if a bit of a sideshow to the other mains.
Where to begin with these...
Let's start with the paneer - a simple looking slab of the familiar cottage cheese, yet not so prosaic in taste. The chervil and coriander chutney that coated the cheese square had a titilating zing that superbly complimented the smoky sear of the paneer.
Equally seared was the meaty and generous halibut with a salty singe that added that little bit extra to the fine fish. Sat in a pool of red curry and green leak sauce this was a beautiful sea food dish with a splash of subcontinental fragrance and colour.
Similarly, the king scallops were delectable. Perfectly cooked and resting in a delicate crab, kiri-hodi milk curry this is another dish not to be missed. The acharu - a Sri Lankan pickle of rambutan fruit grains added a further flourish to what was a gorgeous plate.
Last but not least, the grilled steak in a veal bone marrow and arrack rum curry was arguably the best of the bunch. Leaving us eulogising again, the small beef slices were good enough on their own, but in the savoury yet sweet, umami marrow and rum sauce, were just superb.
As close to a 10 as it comes, the mains here certainly left us feeling Christmas had come early. Amazing.
Due to the expected late arrival of tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, I tried to delay our booking by half an hour which caused a little frustration in the absence of a telephone number for the restaurant. In fairness it's 2022 and they responded quickly over email, but I was a touch put off by the lack of flexibility. That said, they have a business to run and the time slots and booking commitment was pretty clear from the outset. The relatively tight timings of our booking, and the slight discomfort of the unadjustable bar stools for a tall man like myself were the only minor issues, both of which could have been resolved with better planning by us.
In terms of the food and drinks service this was very prompt and further justified the stricter booking slots. A team of four or so staff rotated behind the bar and on orders to provide a seemless and efficient service. It was a case of being seen and not heard rather than full, in-your face personality, which was befitting of the understated style of Paradise at large.
Value for money
To be completely honest there was a little bill shock when it arrived. The bill came to £75 per head which felt maybe £10-15 over what was expected. This is to say nothing of the quality of individual dishes, all of which were generally deserving of their price tags, with perhaps the exception of the aubergine (£9.90) and halibut dishes (£26.50). I guess the latter, shows you the price for good fish these days, rather than any attempt at profiteering from the restuarant, but the main dissaftisfaction was with the price of £6.10 for the rather diminuitive glasses of Lion Lager. Again, I appreciate the import premium for lager from Sri Lanka, but given it is just lager, this still felt too much or unecessary.
A slightly more comfortable seating arrangement might have softened the blow of the bill a little, but I am nit picking. The 7/10 reflects relative value versus other places rather than a particularly damning inditement of Paradise. In general, the food was excellent and worth paying a little more for.
A few years ago we visited Paradise in Pimlico, a restaurant alike in name only to this special Soho Sri Lankan. In fact, Paradise Soho is on par with the very best curry spots in the capital. It’s closest comparators would be Hoppers and Kolamba from a Sri Lankan angle, but also the much lauded Tamil Prince in Barnsbury – incredible company, I’m sure you’d agree.
There’s no doubt that the food here is special, particularly the larger dishes – the paneer, halibut, steak, and scallops – just wow. With such a concise, but varied menu offering delicate and detailed flavours and textures Paradise isn’t to be missed. Yes, the interior style and seating might not be to all tastes, but now you know what to ask for when booking. Prices are also on the higher end, but not unreasonable and generally worth it.
Definitely get this restaurant on your 2023 lists, curry Paradise truly does exist in Soho.
Address: 61 Rupert St, London W1D 7PW
Cuisine: Sri Lankan
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: Modern, chic, Sri Lankan small plates restaurant in the heart of Soho