Lengthy power cuts, severe food and fuel shortages and record inflation have thrust Sri Lanka to the fore of international news in recent months. As we saw plastered all over the front pages, the dire situation amassed to widespread protests and demonstrators even stormed the presidential palace and the prime minister’s residence in hot-headed rage. Then, for the first time in the country’s history, we watched as president Gotabaya Rajapaksa bowed to the pressure of the revolutionaries, resigned and fled the country in humiliation.

While the country may have sworn in a new prime minister, the Southern Asian nation continues to grapple with a state of emergency. But it is also worth looking beyond images of protestors throwing flames and headlines that render Sri Lanka a “country in chaos” or in “meltdown” to remember why it holds the nickname “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. 

From Sri Lanka’s parade of Asian elephants to its pristine coastline and rolling surf, timeless ruins and diverse cuisine, it’s easy to see where it gets its charm, and it’s essential we don’t forget it.

So while a trip to see all the sights and bites of Sri Lanka may be off-the-cards for the time being, head to the bright lights of London’s Soho, where you will find a Sri Lankan restaurant that is a pocket full of paradise.

Dom Fernando opened his restaurant Paradise in 2019, intending to bring modern Sri Lankan ingredients, flavours, design and style to Rupert St — one of the main arteries of Soho. 

Born in North-West London to Sri Lankan parents, Fernando has always had a taste for the world of dining and hospitality. He grew up around tables of family and friends where rice and curry were always the centrepieces. “At the time, I didn’t enjoy constantly having the same thing when all my friends were out having burgers and chips,” says Fernando. “But as I grew older, I came to appreciate the act of always sitting down and realised how much I had learnt from my aunt and grandmother, who both were (and still are) phenomenal cooks.”

After studying at Edinburgh University, Fernando, by his own admission, “did what all good Asian sons do and became an accountant.” Eventually, he could no longer ignore the siren call of hospitality and left to join Intercontinental Hotels, where he worked worldwide. “It was during this time that I cemented my love of hospitality, food and restaurants,” he says. “I was based out in the Middle East and Asia, so I was lucky enough to see the different food cultures and the different customers, which would lead me to think up the idea for a restaurant like Paradise.”

Dom Fernando had always wanted to open a restaurant but faced the obstacle of inexperience when confronting fastidious landlords and agents in London. So to get over his amateur status, he began doing supper clubs with his first head chef in Balham to test the concept; it was an instant hit. 

In 2019, he decided it was either a “go hard or go home” moment, so he set his sights on Soho. “It’s just one of the food centres in London,” he says. “You have the likes of Palomar, Kiln and Hoppers, which are all small restaurants that really pushed London’s food scene forward. I wanted to do something unique that wasn’t commercial, that fitted in with my view of modern Sri Lanka, and that’s what eventually became Paradise.”

If you hadn’t already guessed by the dates of Paradise’s unveiling, the timing was not on Fernando’s side as he opened the restaurant three months before the pandemic hit in January 2020. “It was a very challenging few years,” he says frankly. “But we were fortunate to have Marina O’Loughlin review us, as well as William Sitwell, Tom Parker-Bowels, Tim Hayward and Ed Cummings.” 

After receiving glowing reviews from crème de la crème of restaurant critics, Paradise soon had queues around the block. Fast-forward two years and Paradise continues to be the victor of all the spoils. Inspired by the bistros of Colombo and Galle, Paradise has a menu of small and bigger plates that pays homage to Sri Lankan traditionality and modernity.  

The menu offers small bites such as their slow-braised middle-white pigs head cutlets with tamarind, apple and Indian onion. There are also small plates such as the Northern style turmeric dahl with mustard seed temper and fried long aubergine and jaggery moju. The main plates include dishes such as stir-fried devilled prawns with burnt lime and dry-fried-red-style minced chicken with roasted spices and a coconut veil. Not omitting their side offerings of a St Ewe’s hen egg hopper or lamb fat-infused roti to soak up all the juices.

 “The food at Paradise is ingredient-driven,” explains Fernando. “We bring a lot of our produce from Sri Lanka — which is particularly challenging given what’s going on — so that we can have the flavours in our dishes. At the heart of every dish on the menu is a medley of Sri Lankan flavours. 

 The food in the country has been influenced by its colonial influences — British, Dutch, South Indian and Malay — which has had a significant impact on the food. We also work seasonally with British producers like Natoor and Shrub Provisions to play with traditional Sri Lankan dishes and give it our own spin.”

Of all the plates, Fernando’s “favourite shortie” is the pig head cutlets. “It’s a croquette-like dish you find in Sri Lanka with either fish or mutton, but we wanted to use pig heads as it was a British take, and it has an amazing texture,” he says. “It’s spicy, sweet and sour, and those pickled Indian onions add zest and cut through all the flavours.” He also speaks highly of the aubergine moju, which came as a “revelation”, and the stir-devilled prawns due to their “in-your-face punch”. He adds, “that dish is true Sri Lankan flavour — you don’t mess around with the dish like that!”

The vibrancy and electricity of these dishes reverberate off the restaurant’s stripped-back and greyscale interiors. Dom Fernando took inspiration from the concept of tropical brutalism when designing Paradise, and it was important to him to have a space that reflected the use of concrete walls amongst Asia’s tropics. “I went for a minimal brutalist design as I wanted the flavour to come from the food,” he explains. “We wanted it to be sleek and modern and pay respect to the people we worked with.”

Fernando worked with British woodworker and designer Dan Preston, who also worked with revered restaurants such as KILN, Brat and The Smoking Goat. The concrete banquettes and leather cushioning come directly from his studio in Haggerston. The handmade clay tableware is sourced from Brixton-based husband and wife team Sofia Ceramics with organic stoneware by Jo Marland from her Shoreditch studio.

Stepping into Paradise from the hustle-and-bustle of Soho feels like you have entered a portal into another world. The 35-cover restaurant may be effortlessly cool, but it is also marvellously intimate. Up against the concrete, the light from the day and the flicker of candlelight at night illuminates satiated faces in its glow. The banquet of plates roll in and out of the kitchen like the tide and gloat colours and textures that transport you 5,411 miles away to the beating heart of Colombo.  

“In an ideal world, when people leave Paradise, I want them to think “this makes me want to book a flight to Sri Lanka,” concludes Fernando. “I want people to go WOW, that meal was so fantastic, I need to go and see for myself. As things stand, now may not be the best time to go, but I want people to see [through Paradise] just how great of a country it is.”

For Dom Fernando’s last ever supper, he picks a start of a fish tartare to tease the palette. For his main course, he picks a smorgasbord of Thai, Indonesian and Indian food and tiramisu with gelato for his dessert. To drink, an espresso martini.

Paradise’s recipe for Northern Turmeric Dhal Recipe – Serves 8

An interview with Dom Fernando, the owner of the contemporary Sri-Lankan restaurant Paradise. Featuring a recipe for Northern Tumeric Dhal.

Ingredients for base

250 g(1¼ cups) red lentils, rinsed, drained 
1onion, finely chopped 
2garlic cloves, crushed 
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp Sri Lankan curry powder 
6fresh curry leaves 
1 long green chilli, sliced 
1cinnamon quill 
500 ml(2 cups) coconut milk 
60 ml(¼ cup) coconut cream 
coriander leaves to serve

Ingredients for the Temper topping

80 ml olive oil 
1 tsp mustard seeds 
1 cinnamon quill 
1 large onion, finely chopped 
4garlic cloves, sliced
5fresh curry leaves 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes

To make the Dhal

Place all the ingredients except the coconut cream in a saucepan with 250 ml water and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, for 25 minutes or until lentils are tender and broken down; add more water if necessary and season with salt.

To make the Temper Topping

To cook the temper for the dhal, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat.

Then add the remaining ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes or until onions are soft and browned. Remove from the heat and set aside until the lentils are ready.

Stir the temper into the lentils, then add the coconut cream, stirring to combine.

Top with fresh coriander and serve with rice.