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William Sitwell reviews Paro, London: ‘Bowl after bowl of indeterminate slop’

Sitwell: 'The rotis crumbled at the touch'
Sitwell: 'The rotis crumbled at the touch' - David Turner

My stomach still groans at the memory. And I know it doesn’t need to be that way. Indeed it’s one of the great revelations I’ve had when it comes to Indian food in recent years: you can have a bellyful of curry, of dishes of flaming spice, with poppadoms and rice and naan and lager, and still leave without feeling that you never want to eat again.

In Indian restaurants across the UK – from Mattancherry in Taunton to Empire Empire in London – you can now dine on carefully considered, intelligently spiced, freshly cooked, authentic Indian food that doesn’t make you want to heave on exit. All of which shows how far we have travelled from the 1970s days of the ubiquitous Bangladeshi, laminate menu offering; that insult to Indian food that enables you to walk into any curry house in the UK and order exactly the same dish. So I was intrigued and excited at the idea of Paro, a new restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, heralded as a ‘love letter to Calcutta’.

It’s situated in the same building as the Lyceum Theatre, so you can wolf down a curry then sit through The Lion King. I took a gang of friends along with me so I could do justice to the West Bengal epistle, but what transpired was more poison pen than affectionate missive.

Paro is located in the same building as London's Lyceum Theatre
Paro is located in the same building as London's Lyceum Theatre - David Turner

The entrance is impressive: an arched corner with a green canopy and a man in a bowler hat. Once inside, you’re immediately greeted by a colourful bar and banquette seating which is a promising, warm and welcoming start. Which is why the restaurant disappoints even more.

Through a short tunnel, you arrive in a place of dark brown panelling, cheap wobbly tables and uncomfortable chairs; a room with all the charm of a bailiff’s storage facility. Plastic flowers drip from the ceiling, more clumsy than colourful, and the staff rush around in a spirit that is more like crossing a busy road in Hanoi than the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The menu is what my geography teacher at school would call ‘sizeable’, that is: vast. There are: small plates (by which I think they mean starters), seafood, veg, meat, game and poultry, tandoori grill, meat thali, sides, biryani and bread as well as the offer of ‘classic curries made on request’.

Sitwell: 'This is your typical old school curry house offering'
Sitwell: 'This is your typical old school curry house offering' - David Turner

In other words, this is your typical old school curry house offering. Except there were some dishes I’d not heard of that appealed, especially ‘staff-railway curry’ and ‘vegetable bungalow curry’.

The bungalow refers to the little shacks or small buildings in India that, during the British Raj, offered couriers or travellers rest and respite along official mail routes. Its appearance on the menu lent the place an air of authenticity, a taste of the real deal.

But having also ordered Paro butter chicken, ‘Daadee’s’ chicken naga and various daals and breads, what emerged was just bowl after bowl of indeterminate slop.

Inside Paro: 'cheap wobbly tables and uncomfortable chairs'
Inside Paro: 'cheap wobbly tables and uncomfortable chairs' - David Turner

The bungalow dish (promised as Madras hot) was a weak and feeble mix of veg, while a king prawn curry described as ‘very spicy’ was equally powerless. The staff-railway was a heavy heave of chewy lamb chunks in a thick, stagnant pond-green grey and the chicken naga was nothing more than the ubiquitous red-stained tandoori chicken lacking in flavour and spice. The daal was stiff and unsoupy and the rotis crumbled at the touch.

As for dinner followed by The Lion King, a warning: your groaning stomach might drown the Circle of Life chorus and ushers would escort you out