A chef who creates his own recipes, who nods to Sri Lankan cuisine but is not defined by it and who prefers his flavours unbalanced presents a delicious conundrum, says Lisa Jenkins.
Malin de Silva thinks he may have "found his Paradise". The head chef took over at Paradise on Rupert Street in the heart of London's Soho in April, just before it reopened at the end of May.
Owner Dom Fernando originally opened the family-backed restaurant in 2019, naming it after a tagline on an SriLankan Airlines brochure (Sri Lanka – a Taste of Paradise) he read at the age of 11. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then, was known as the Paradise Island, and he and de Silva are aiming to encapsulate his memories of that trip, the culture and the flavours.
Paradise was awarded a Bib Gourmand during the UK's third lockdown, when the restaurant was headed up by chef Charith Priyadarshana, now senior sous chef at the Royal Automobile Club. De Silva, who lives in rural Pembrokeshire, with his own woodland where he grows mushrooms, makes his own crockery and whittles, wasn't planning on Paradise for his next step, but says, "I'd have been mad to miss this chance".
The menu is a melting pot of the cultures of de Silva's birthplace, with influences from the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, who all colonised the island, as well as North and South India and the Sinhalese. The premise is to create dishes using Sri Lankan techniques, flavours and spices and the best of British ingredients.
One example of a dish that pulls all these strands together is the wagyu beef tartare, calamansi, coconut, chilli and curry leaf roast paan crumb (£10.90). The calamansi is imported from Sri Lanka and, combined with soy sauce, is "a bit like a ponzu". The dish is finished with a curry leaf breadcrumb, using Sri Lankan bread and coconut. "You just wouldn't get beef tartare in Sri Lanka," says de Silva.
The chef creates all his own recipes, each celebrating powerful flavours: "Most chefs say you need to balance flavours, but I like to say you unbalance them." He uses pickles and fermentations as well as spices, so diners taste something spicy, then have a bite of pickle that unbalances it, then back to the spice, and back to the pickle, which, he says "takes away the overwhelming flavour of the spice. Our dishes are unique and they are not traditional – but that's OK, because we are trying to challenge the perception of Sri Lankan food."
Most chefs say you need to balance flavours, but I like to say you unbalance them
The country-style mung bean curry (£7.80) also takes diners on this journey. This dish uses pickled chillies and shallots, coconut and curry leaf oil to create a humble dish, inspired by his mother's cooking as a child, and it may well become de Silva's signature dish.
When pushed to pick his preferred dish, however, it would be his childhood favourite, a starter of raw green and ripe yellow mango acharu, coconut vinegar and marigold (£5.20).
"Acharu means pickle and we used to make it with lots of different fruits as a kid. It's simple – just fruit and vinegar with some chilli – and every Sri Lankan kid would have eaten it. It just looks a lot different on our plates."
De Silva brought several suppliers with him from his last role at Fraiche in Oxton in Birkenhead under Marc Wilkinson, one of which, Alternative Meats, supplies the Mangalitza pork belly, as well as daily deliveries of speciality produce directly from Sri Lanka, such as goraka (black tamarind) and ambarella, known as June plum, which tastes of pineapple and mango.
The wine list has been chosen by wine consultant Zeren Wilson, working alongside restaurant manager Sam Jones (an ex-Wasps rugby player), and the cocktails have been created by Fernando and Australian bar manager Ellen Visser, including an off-menu cardamom espresso, which could double as a dessert.
Of the six front of house staff, four have been on an immersive study trip to Sri Lanka, giving them the knowledge to be able to describe and recommend dishes to the customers. There are seven staff in the kitchen, including a kitchen porter, and the team serve 130-140 covers on a Saturday evening, where each diner pays an average of £45.
Alongside the hottest dish on the menu, of stir-fried devilled prawns, capsicum, green chilli and murunga (£14.40), it seems that de Silva and the team at Paradise are on fire.
61 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PW
From the menu
- Breadfruit pastry, pineapple ketchup £5.70
- Hogget shoulder rolls, fermented chilli £6.60
- Grilled Ceylonese spiced langoustines, mango chutney, papaya and palm heart £8.70
- Cured seabass, coconut, chilli, lemongrass, lunu-miris, shiso £10.90
- Charred Melilot Farm courgette and cucumber kiri-hodi curry, cumin and chilli oil £8.30
- Triple-cooked devilled new potatoes, rampe, chilli, curry leaf, puffed potato £8.40
- Smoked chicken and ambarella curry, Lion stout and jaggery Tropea onions, crispy skin £12.50
- Roasted yellow cod curry, Jaffna spiced dried tomatoes, XO kooni crust £14.90
- Hand-stretched paratha roti, coconut and lovage butter £5.50
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