Wednesday, 5 August 2015
Darjeeling Express at the Sun & 13 Cantons, Soho
That said, all rules are there to be broken, and of course I have very occasionally written about popups if it looked like there was a chance of their legacy lasting. I don't regret lavishing praise on Ben Greeno all those years ago; it wasn't my fault he decided to move to Sydney as soon as word of his talent got out. And I knew a brief stint at a pie & mash shop in Hackney wouldn't be the last we saw of the brilliant Sabel - they're currently doing their thing in a beautiful loft space in Clapton and you haven't lived until you've tried their custard tart. Get tickets while you can.
And someone else who is definitely going places is Asma Khan. First there was her supper club in Kensington, still spoken about in hushed tones by those lucky enough to have been. And now she's to be found in residence at the Sun & 13 Cantons in Soho, Mondays to Wednesdays, serving food so good it threatens to spoil every other Indian meal you've ever eaten. Ever.
Right from the very first bite it's clear that this is food that has been considered, carefully crafted and loved. Newari Salad had a beguiling mix of earthy sesame and red chilli heat, cooled by chunks of cucumber; I could have eaten nothing but buckets of this and come away happy. So often salads in Indian food are just a pile of chopped onion and tomato to go on your poppadums - this was a genuinely unique (as far as I know, for London at least) little dish, enough to make me want to know a lot more about Newari cuisine. To the left of it is a lamb samosa to end all lamb samosas - packed full of spicy meat in a delicate thin pastry and provided with a tangy tamarind dip. All of these were provided free of charge because my friend was running late, and I'm fairly confident Asma didn't know me from Adam at this point - the service (also provided mainly by Asma herself) being every bit as good as the food.
So when my friend finally arrived we ordered more of the punchy lamb samosas, and a round of "puchkas", dainty little things you may have seen elsewhere as pani puri but almost definitely never as good as this, each packed to the brim with so much fresh diced vegetables that there was hardly any room for the tamarind water you have to pour inside.
Tamarind dal (left) was a thick and spicy version of this Indian home-cooked favourite.
"This is how we always had it at home" said Asma as we enthusiastically worked our way through it.
"Does everyone eat this well at home in India?" I wondered, already deliberating the cost of a one-way flight and a nice air-conditioned apartment somewhere with a view of the Bay of Bengal.
"Not everyone, no - we were very lucky."
Turns out Asma is of Indian royal stock - her family own a fortress somewhere in the north of the country, and her own experience of the Newari and Mughlai dishes she creates so confidently today was solely being on the receiving end until a trip back to her ancestral kitchens to learn the recipes she'd been eating all her young life. So the dishes you see here are, technically, home-style, but home-style as served to the very upper echelons of Indian society. At least, until now.
The khosa mangsho, Bengali goat curry, was probably my favourite dish of all, and as you might have gathered by now, that's really saying something. Chunks of melting-tender goat in a sauce so powerful and complex it makes a mockery of anything else purporting to call itself a curry. With fragrant rice to soak it up, it's a dish that could turn the most stubborn and timid souls into an Indian food enthusiast.
Even the desserts were memorable, and not just compared to the sweet fritters and one-note kulfis that are usually offered by your local High St curry house. Nankhatai are biscuits flavoured with rose water and pistachio, warm from the oven, and this little carrot cake topped with pistachios was just lovely, a gentle bouncy texture and expertly balanced flavours.
Clearly if you have even the most passing interest in Indian food you should do everything you can to get a table at the Sun & 13 Cantons (Monday to Wednesday only, remember) while Asma is in residence, as food as good as this, and service as warm and friendly as this, demands an audience. But the fact remains that Darjeeling Express is still a popup, and once the takeover comes to an end, what next? A clue may be in the form of head chef of Gymkhana, Karam Sethi, who just happened to be enthusiastically working his way through the entire menu the very same night I was. This is a man who knows his Indian food (in fact I'd say one of the few people in London whose skills in balancing complex spices could match Asma's) but also - crucially - knows his restaurants. With the phenomenally successful Lyle's, Bao and Kitchen Table already in his portfolio, surely he'd spot the potential of another bundle of raw talent to set up with a nice central location? You heard it here first.
More information on Asma and Darjeeling Express can be found on her website.