Monday, 24 July 2017

Darjeeling Express, Soho

It's a sign of how good Darjeeling Express is, and how great its draw to hungry Londoners, that despite its off-the-beaten-track location on the 3rd floor of a rather soulless food/shopping mall, they were turning people away for the walk-in tables for the duration of the time I was there. For anywhere in the super-competitive Soho restaurant scene this is impressive; for somewhere barely a month old, well, clearly something pretty special is going on.

Of course "barely a month old" doesn't quite tell the whole story. Asma Khan has been cooking her own brand of multi-regional Indian cuisine for a number of years now, first at a supper club in her own house and later at a short-lived (but wildly popular) popup at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. I loved it then, both the unusual dishes that took inspiration from Calcutta to the Himalayas, and service from Asma herself who is as good as ambassador for her food and Indian food in particular as any flashy PR firm.

And I love it now, settled into this bright spot overlooking the Kingly Court central courtyard and serving a short and irresistably attractive menu of highlights from her Sun and 13 Cantons stint as well as a few fascinating new bits and pieces. First to arrive were the puchkas, which you may have seen elsewhere called things like gol guppas (Gymkhana) or dahi puri (Masala Zone and elsewhere) - little puff pastry casings full of chick peas and potato, into which you pour tamarind water then attempt to swallow the whole lot before the pastry soaks through and collapses. They're as fun as they are tasty, with an addictive set of textures and seductively spiced.

Tangra chilli garlic prawns were nothing short of brilliant - the bounce and fleshiness of the absolute finest fresh seafood (I'm not going to risk declaring they were cooked from live, but they certainly tasted like it), in that slick, salty way that seemingly only the very best Chinese kitchens can achieve, matched with a tantalising note of Indian spices. Tangra is apparently Calcutta's Chinatown, and the Indo-Chinese flavours here are a deliberate tribute to that part of the city.

I'm happy to report that the old Sun & 13 Cantons dishes have lost none of their charm or impact. Lamb samosas are still amongst the best in town, packed full of top quality lamb and presented with marvellous dippings sauces - coriander, tamarind and chilli.

Is there a part of me prepared to admit I prefer the thick, chocolately black dal than the thinner, lighter yellow (Hyderabadi Tamarind) dal? Well yes, probably, but once you'd got used to the idea of thinking about it more like a soup than a side then it was still very enjoyable, rich and smooth with a nice kick of smoked chilli.

More prawns, with the same beautiful fresh texture but this time in a Bengali sauce of spiced coconut milk. Darjeeling Express really do a very good line in prawns - either they've found a great supplier or just don't overcook them like most other kitchens in London. Or both.

Venison kofta had a nice loose texture and came in a powerful tomato/chilli sauce. It's probably worth mentioning the tableware at this point too - the irregular shaped bowls give everything a nice organic aesthetic.

"Hyderabadi mirchi ka saalan" was a kind of onion/chilli stew made with ground peanuts and sesame, and tasted far nicer than its grey complexion would suggest. It was a sesame salad back in their Soho incarnation that made me realise how much more there was to Indian food than I had previously discovered - this was another genuinely unusual dish. At least, to me.

Methi chicken was perhaps the most "high street" of the Darjeeling Express mains, but lifted itself from the completely ordinary thanks to good moist chunks of chicken thighs and a nice light tomato sauce. All of the sauces, in fact, were excellent - I highly recommend at least a bowl of rice to soak up any leftovers, and indeed a few slices of the house roti to polish off any chilli/coriander/tamarind dips that may still be hanging around.

Dessert was a huge bowl of "bhapa doi", a kind of sugary yoghurt mixture that normally comes in a more sensible portion size; Asma gave us the entire batch "just so we can see what it looks like". It looked, and tasted, great, so much so I don't want to tell you how much of this insane amount we ate between the three of us. Because none of us are proud of it.

Clearly, then, nobody would have much to complain about at Darjeeling Express with regards to the quality of the cooking. Just like in the popup in Soho, all the food is considered, crafted and carefully presented, lovingly researched and bursting with flavour. The influences are as varied and exciting as the woman behind them, taking cues Chinese and Himalayan cuisines and introducing them in accessible and enjoyable ways. When it comes to what's on the plate, Darjeeling Express is near-faultless.

Unfortunately we live in a world of rents, overheads and staff shortages, and in the move from a borrowed space in a pub in Soho to a proper, big, mature restaurant some things have necessarily had to change. If you want good food you have to pay for it anywhere, of course, but I wonder if £14 for five meatballs or £16 for five prawns (I think, apologies if I'm wrong on these numbers) could be quite a hard sell to a non-foodie customer base used to paying a lot less for their curry. And if you're going to leave the service charge off by default (which is entirely up to them of course, though I wouldn't recommend it), please don't have your staff handwrite cheery "SERVICE NOT INCLUDED! THANK YOU!" messages on the paper bill, it just looks needy.

But you know what, niggles aside this is still a lovely place to eat, and I'll certainly be back. So maybe that's all you need to know. Asma Khan is a singular force in London food, forging her own path, singlehandedly creating her own brand of Indian-fusion cuisine (with help from an all-female kitchen team, of course) and ending up with an idiosyncratic and characterful restaurant in a city that thought it had seen everything. For sheer audacity alone it's worth a visit; the food is just a wonderful bonus. There's nowhere quite like the Darjeeling Express.



Anonymous said...

How could you serve prawns without heads?

Anonymous said...

just one point, most wait staff are on minimum wage so they are "needy" for tips as it's the only way they can pay for their rent & food, so if it's not included in the bill, then they'll feel anxious to flag that to you

Unknown said...

Thank you! So glad you enjoyed your meal! We look forward to feeding you again- no smiley face handwritten message for you next time! ��

David Ginsberg said...

2 bottles of wine between 3, good on you for properly getting on it! nice to see a reviewer enjoying his meal properly.