Jesse Mulligan Reviews Paradise, Sandringham's Most Loved Curry House
When craving curry, head for the comfort of one of Auckland’s most popular Indian restaurants, writes Jesse Mulligan
Address: 591 Sandringham Rd
Phone: (09) 845 1144
Reservations: Not accepted
From the menu: Chicken tikka $14; fish tandoori $19; baby corn chilli $14; chicken pasinday $20; bagarey baigan (eggplant) $17; mutton biryani $14; garlic naan $3
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.
Sometimes you just feel like a good curry. You toy with the idea of Indian some time in the middle of the morning and then slowly the thought of it starts to obsess you, until nothing else will do.
This is the power of curry, a power not often seen in other types of food, although perhaps fried chicken comes close. As I type these words it’s 10.11am on a Saturday and I already know I’ll be spending the rest of the day talking my wife into eating Indian tonight. We are all of us helpless in the face of vindaloo.
Even an average curry will do the trick. As long as it has onions, tomatoes, chilli and a few warming spices, it will probably hit the spot but the second-rate versions are likely to leave you slightly cross. The gravy-to-protein ratio is all wrong, the meat is uniformly cubed and treated as a vehicle rather than a star, the extra spice you requested is added last minute in the form of chilli powder — a searing but shallow burn.
There is a lot of this pedestrian stuff out there but there is also Paradise, which from the outside looks like any other curry house, but which is the only brand name aside from Satya that has become a genuine synonym for quality. Of the two, Paradise is the one that seems to be the biggest hit with Indian-New Zealanders, a reassuring if not infallible way of assessing a restaurant’s quality.
More often than not I avoid reviewing these cheaper, less flashy restaurants. Neighbourhood mum-and-dad operations have their place but it seems unfair to do the beverage match at Pasture one week then complain about the house wine at Ravi’s the next. Yet the most successful restaurant in Sandringham kept calling me in my daydreams, demanding that I visit. So the next time I got curry fever I called into Paradise for the tonic.
I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the non-culinary aspects of the restaurant but this really is an unapologetically functional operation. They don’t do alcohol, they don’t do chat, they don’t even visit you at your table. We were directed to a cold, windy seat at the back of the room. A metre away, at nose height, was a bottle of all-purpose cleaner that was the only thing you could smell between courses. We were told to return to the counter when we were ready to order, and take a number.
And yet there is something undeniably comforting about this room, where the only furnishings are large flat-screen TVs playing the Cricket World Cup. It is lovely to be in a room where so many people are eating happily — where people have been eating happily all day before you got there and will continue eating happily once you leave. The food creates its own atmosphere, in a way, and although I wouldn’t send you here for a special occasion, the occasion of being hungry is more than enough reason to go.
Almost every dish is a winner but you’ll do well with any of the house specialties. A chicken curry made with poppy seed paste is stunningly full flavoured. It’s the pale colour of a korma but with a lingering depth and energy that makes it impossible to stop eating. Eggplant comes in a fiery “tamarind gravy”, the chilli-coloured oil just separated from the sauce. I really loved the deep-fried baby corn, which doesn’t sound like much when you read it but has this crunchy, spicy, moreishness that reminds you of the best of Satya Chai Lounge, my K Road addiction that started its life a few doors down the road from Paradise.
And then there is the busy tandoor oven, which turns out bright pink chicken that is hot, smokey, spicy and juicy, and served with cold minty yoghurt. We also ordered the tandoori fish, which is served whole so I’m not sure how they even managed to cook it in that deep narrow oven. It’s not the best sort of meat to blast given its delicacy but the bones and the sealed skin helped to mitigate the slight overcooking of the flesh.
My only disappointment was the mutton biryani, a royal celebration dish that has always seemed to me to be the opposite — a cheap way of bulking out leftover meat with heaps of rice. Here I think it is a little short of both the sheep and the whole spices that would make it more of an indulgence.
My favourite execution of this dish came from across the road at Top ‘n’ Town takeaways, but I see this has now either sold or rebranded. Where do I find Auckland’s best biryani these days? Let me know. Half the fun of great Indian food is finding it, and once you’ve found Paradise you may well call off the search.