591 Sandringham Rd
Ph: (09) 845 1144
The man sidled up to me as I stood at the back of a group watching the chefs make roti, patting the dough into flat rounds and casting them with practised ease on to a dome-shaped plate above a fire.
"You are a journalist?" he asked, eyeing the notebook in my hand. I had to plead guilty. I was there to write about the Sandringham Food and Spice Tour, a highly enjoyable sampler of some of the eateries in that part of town.
"How I go about getting a reviewer to come to my restaurant," he asked. "Do I send him an invitation or maybe a voucher."
"Well," I replied, "as luck would have it, I am on very good terms with the restaurant reviewer at the newspaper. He is even closer to me than my own brother. I am pretty sure" - here I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together meaningfully - "I would be able to persuade him to come."
No, of course I didn't. I told him that sooner or later the restaurant reviewer would notice him. I didn't say that had already happened.
Thus I found myself meeting up with a trio of hungry mates on a recent Tuesday evening, early enough to be sure that we wouldn't have a problem getting a table. (At 6pm, we were only just early enough; by 6.30 it was busy, and by 7pm there was not a spare seat in the house).
Sandringham - as anyone who is interested in eating out should know - is a place where the diner with a taste of the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent is spoiled for choice. And Paradise is certainly several cuts above your bog-standard Indian.
As the website name suggests, Paradise also operates as a takeaway, and I suspect a good proportion of its business is take-home. The side-by-side premises are marked by an eye-catching gas brazier and there's a separate entry for those dining in, down a narrow passage that passes the busy, brightly lit kitchen, where skewers of tandoori chicken, red with spice paste, hang in the window.
Paradise is not only unlicensed but proudly proclaims itself an "alcohol-free zone", a nod to the management's Muslim faith. The thirsty have recourse to a chiller full of exotic fizzy drinks and pre-mixed lassis, and bottles of chilled filtered water arrive unbidden.
For reasons best known to themselves they don't provide table service either. You can check the menu while seated and your food is delivered, but someone has to trudge up to the counter to order. The jarringly food-hall idea is irritating, especially since the decor - the room is subtly lit and warm - tries for the upmarket.
Interestingly, the menu has a section headed "Indian Chinese" (Manchurian and Shangai [sic] sauces are mentioned), which perhaps accounts for the fact that fully a third of the diners were from parts of Asia east of the Indian subcontinent. The rest was strongly in the Persian-influenced rich and creamy Mughlai style of the north, rather than the spare and spicy tastes of south Indian food.
As such it suffered from the same drawback that afflicts all Mughlai food: a sameness creeps into everything. The menu concedes as much, offering the explanation that balti lamb is made with "a special balti gravy" and that lamb spinach is "tender lamb cooked with spinach". You don't expect them to give you the recipe, but it takes a more discerning palate than mine to tell you just what was different about the fish masala ("hand-ground spices") and the kadai lamb ("special spices").
The standout failure was a biryani - the baked rice dish that is one of the shining glories of Mughlai food. It was dry and fiery and the lumps of lamb were few and far between - not a patch on the excellent biryanis from Top in Town across the road.
Desserts - Indian variants on rice pud and bread-and-butter pud - were stickily excellent as was a Med-influenced carrot halwa, made with sesame paste. But a cuppa would have been nice to go with it.
Beaming widely and saying "sir" as you report that you don't serve tea doesn't make it right. An Indian restaurant without tea is like a French restaurant without wine or a Japanese restaurant without sake. Having chai masala available at the meal's end would be good business. Not having any tea at all looks remarkably like bad manners.