The new restaurant taking over Spuntino’s place
Disclosure: one dessert was offered for free. This was unsolicited and was accepted out of politeness.
I don’t envy London’s restauranteurs. Extending hospitality, warmth and service is made all the harder by the compromises needed to open a restaurant in the capital’s cutthroat restaurant market. Soaring rents in the most trafficked parts of London means many restauranteurs have to make do with smaller, more cramped premises than they would prefer. Some try to turn this into a virtue, making hay out of the enforced conviviality. But there are times when it’s just painfully obvious that space is at a premium and there’s just no way of hiding it.
Sri Lankan restaurant Paradise has taken over the Soho premises once occupied by cult eatery Spuntino. Although not the capital’s most squeezed restaurant, the counter seating is best suited for couples, lone eagles and – at a stretch – threesomes. There are a handful of tables for groups of four, which are also the only bookable tables in the entire joint. Larger groups are out of luck. Smaller groups that arrive too late on a busy night will also walk away empty stomached. Even if you do snag a perch, you’ll have to contend with dim lighting that’s only just bright enough to read the menu and counter stools that are just a tad too high to be comfortable for short arses like me.
If you can put up with these relatively minor inconveniences though, you’ll find there’s much to enjoy at Paradise Soho. The warm and welcoming staff can guide you through a menu that, in spite of a few rough spots, is strewn with delights.
Short eats at Paradise Soho
Most Sri Lankan restaurants offer mutton rolls – a sheep-filled croquette in other words – with varying degrees of accomplishment. Few are as successful as Paradise’s version, with the crisp and oil-free shell a notable achievement in of itself. But inside was something even more beautiful – earthy, sinewy, succulently meaty and tangy strands of sheep. The punchy heat of the spiced ketchup arguably detracted from the mutton, but even this couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of this genre-defining meaty treat.
The alternative pescatarian croquette inevitably wasn’t quite as eye-opening as the mutton headliner, but the mackerel rolls still had much to recommend them. The filling of fluffy, finely minced mackerel retained some of the fish’s distinctive flavour and paired it with a lightly peppery spicing that tingled a little as it went down the hatch. It was all contained in a fine-crumbed spherical carapace the equal of its mutton counterpart.
The crackly crispness of the savoury doughnut was so exquisite in its mouthfeel that it easily outshone the dullness of the soft, formless lentil filling inside. The lacklustre mint and coconut sauce on the side added little. Disappointing.
Breads at Paradise Soho
Thin and supple roti cut into short, wide strips came filled with slices of gently sweet date and reasonably nutty crumbs of pistachio. While the date and pistachio filling could arguably have been punchier, this peshwari naan analogue was nonetheless satisfying.
The coconut roti was less successful. It didn’t resemble any roti that Happy Buddha was familiar with from his Sri Lankan family. Its thick and soft, yet bland nature bore more of resemblance to Colombian-style arepas.
Although Happy Buddha still can’t get on board with London restaurants serving hoppers one-by-one and charged by the piece, rather than in a big collective free-for-all heap, he had no qualms with how Paradise’s hoppers tasted. Crisp at the top, soft and spongy at the base and tearable throughout. The curry leaf hopper came with small shreds of the herb embedded throughout, imparting its delicate yet distinctive taste. The egg hopper came with a quivering, just set yet richly runny fried egg embedded at the bottom.
The kothu roti wasn’t as feathery soft and smooth as the remarkable version at Hoppers Marylebone. It was instead far more omelette-like in mouthfeel, verging almost on mushiness. It made up for this with a cossetting heartiness and a cumulative spicy heat that tingled on the lips.
Meat mains at Paradise Soho
The pinnacle of Paradise’s meaty mains was undoubtedly the lamb chops. Each chop was a dense yet tender affair with an earthy game-like quality and a mustard-esque warmth dotting the sinewy, fatty seams of meat. Happy Buddha and I were left almost speechless by the Tayyabs-beating, Gunpowder-rivalling quality of these chops.
Dense and thick cheeks of pork came in a sauce bristling with a fruity warmth. It wasn’t overpoweringly spicy though, allowing my lips to luxuriate on the decadent mouthfeel of the chunky cheeks.
The chicken curry was the least successful of the meaty mains. The uninspired breast meat leant on the mild, gently creamy sauce which was itself a milquetoast affair apart from hints of bay leaf. The crisp chicken skin crackling brought a touch of Sunday roast-like richness to the proceedings, but it was too little and too late.
Fish and seafood mains at Paradise Soho
Unlike a lot of devilled dishes in London, Paradise’s devilled prawns actually packed a sweat-inducing heat worthy of brimstone and pitchforks. Prickly then fiery, the chunky sauce went well with the prawn bodies – served with their soft, edible shells still attached – but was even better when taken with the contents of the prawn heads. The crackling heat of the sauce nitro-fuelled the earthiness of the head gunk, much in the same way as a Moscow lab boosts the performance of Russian athletes. Criminally good.
The yellow cod curry was a much milder affair, its milky sauce flavoured with turmeric. Although relatively meaty, the cod’s charms were obscured by the crunchy sheafs of fried potato. Odd.
Springy and firm squid came swimming in a sauce packed with a peppery, sour and prickly heat. This curry wasn’t just about spicy warmth though – long sleeves of sweet and sweated onions added a flavoursome contrast that lingered in my memory long after the meal was over.
Vegetable dishes and sambols at Paradise Soho
Jackfruit biryani was a deeply unimpressive bowl of rice, with little in the way of either fragrance or flavour. While the jackfruit pieces were supple and tender, their tepid lack of character was all the more glaring against the backdrop of the faded rice.
This will sound odd, but the cashew curry would’ve been better off with fewer cashews. While the chewy little sods were enjoyable at first, chewin’ that cud quickly become a chore given the overly generous heap of nuts. Everything around them, on the other hand, was rousing and satiating. The mild yet milky, gently peppery sauce came dotted with star anise, while the umami chew of the dried fish was somewhat analogous to anchovies. A curry of two halves then, but enjoyable overall.
I was sceptical about the pairing of aubergine and jaggery in a curry, but the distinctive fleshiness of the eggplant was complimented surprisingly well by the unmistakable sweetness of jaggery that never became overpowering.
Paradise’s tangy sweet onion sambol wasn’t as punchy as its counterpart at Kolamba, but its coconut sambol was easily the superior of its nearby competitor’s. Subtly yet distinctly sweet and milky with a gentle warmth to it, it added a classy touch to the hoppers.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of these sambols.
Desserts at Paradise Soho
Despite the thin, almost forgettable pastry, the chilli chocolate tart was still a success thanks to its filling. Like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, but made from higher quality chocolate actually worth eating, it was fruity sweet and smooth. The occasional mild chilli kick wasn’t a distraction, instead contrasting with the qualities of the chocolate expanse and bolstering them. The slice of tart was even better when taken with the smooth and reasonably nutty pistachio ice cream. It was no gelato, but it still managed to capture the essence of the nut reasonably well. A winsome dessert, overall.
Buffalo milk ice cream was a primal, lustful treat – thick, dense and exceptionally creamy. It contrasted well with the light crunch and chew of the cashew brittle. Although more like a biscuit than a brittle and with only a passing hint of butterscotch, the cashew brittle was arguably better off as a result. A fine pairing.
The coconut sorbet was very un-sorbet like and was more of a vegan-friendly ice cream. Exceptionally smooth, supple and taut, it hid its dairy-free nature remarkably well. Milky, gently sweet and distinctly coconut flavoured, it received a sensual boost from the fragrant herby sweetness of basil oil. Reader, it was so toe-curlingly good that I ordered seconds.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between Paradise Soho and Hoppers (which will soon be added a third restaurant alongside its existing Soho and Marylebone locations). Although Paradise’s proprietors would doubtless say that the comparison is unwarranted as they’re trying to do something different, such bashful conflict avoidance is both unnecessary and unwarranted. This scrappy newcomer is more than capable of holding its own. The unapologetically bold dishes, from the squid curry and devilled prawns to the mutton rolls, lamb chops and aubergine jaggery moju, are a forceful statement of this kitchen’s thrilling take on Sri Lankan cooking.
Paradise Soho’s food is so unmissable, that it’s easily worth bearing with the commercial compromises that the proprietors have had to make from the restrictive reservations policy to the confined seating. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In the words of the Happy Buddha, my dining companion of Sri Lankan descent, ‘Kolamba is Sri Lankan food watered down for suburbanite Westerners. Paradise, on the other hand, tastes and feels like the Sri Lanka I remember.’
What to order: Squid curry; devilled prawns; mutton rolls; lamb chops; aubergine jaggery moju; hoppers; all the desserts
What to skip: Jackfruit biriyani
Name: Paradise Soho
Address: 61 Rupert Street, Soho, London W1D 7PW
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 17.30-23.00.
Reservations? only accepted for groups of four or more.
Average cost for one person excluding drinks: £40 approx.