Reviewed by Zohra
There is absolutely nothing standard about Darjeeling Express. From the vessels your Chai comes in to the menu itself, every single aspect of the dining experience at this restaurant has a touch of magic to it. Chef Asma Khan’s first restaurant is in Kingly Court, Soho, and builds on her expert cooking and hosting skills built up over the last few years. Having been to Asma’s supper club a few times, Ruman and I had to go and check out Darjeeling Express‘ new home.
Lets start with the decor. Two floors up at Kingly Court, the restaurant is tastefully decorated with seats that remind you of the romantic kind of Old India that may not even exist any more. The Chai is served in pots specially created and designed by Asma, and even the plates have been specially commissioned to fit in with Asma’s vision.
Asma Khan always talks about feeding people like they are coming to her house and experiencing some of her warmth and love. ‘Looking forward to feeding you’ is the phrase I hear most often from her. And so with high hopes, we tried almost half the menu. Read on for an account of our foodie experience.
Calcutta is the only city in India with a Chinatown (Tangra) and these prawns are infused with all the Indo-Chinese flavours of the region. This was the perfect dish to whet our appetites, providing a full flavoured mouthful for each bite. Starters are rarely worth the stomach space, but these definitely warrant a try.
Darjeeling Express has always served incredible Puchkas, and these did not disappoint. There were five pieces in this portion of wheat and semolina shells filled with spiced black chickpeas, potatoes and tamarind water. The tamarind water was quite spicy, so Ruman finished three while I had two.
I never usually order drinks with food when I’m trying to taste a lot of the menu, because I feel like they take up unnecessary eating space in my tummy. Asma insisted we try the Tamarind Spritz and Sweet Basil Sharbat, and I’m glad she did! The Tamarind Spritz is one of my new favourite drinks in London, which is saying something because we’re finally getting to experience some non alcoholic cocktails across the London restaurant scene which aren’t just a fizzy base with bucket loads of sugar in them for flavour. Having said that, Ruman and I both enjoyed the flavour of basil but weren’t big fans of the sweetness of the Sweet Basil Sherbet.
In another example of how there is nothing standard about Darjeeling Express, the menu itself is a mix of Asma’s take on a few staples like Puchkas, and things most people have never heard of. There are no typical London Indian restaurant style dishes like jalfrezi, rogan josh or vindaloo here. Here come some of the interesting dishes available as a result of Asma’s own rich and diverse heritage.
I love goat. Having tried it for the first time in Kenya a few years ago, it was exciting to see it on the menu again in the form of a Bengali style goat curry.
Next up, slow cooked beef stew infused with smoked chillies. Tender meat, strong flavours and a bit of heat make this a bold dish.
You haven’t tried Puris till you’ve tried Asma’s Puris. Seriously. I know everyone thinks their Mum makes the best ones, but bring her here and she’ll be asking for the recipe. Soft and fluffy on the inside with a crunchy texture on the outside, these Puris are the kind you finish a portion of before you have a chance to think.
Yes, this next dish might look like your average accompaniment to Indian food, but as with everything else here, it’s not. Green chilli and onions cooked with ground peanuts, sesame and coconut. The flavours here have to be tried to be understood. Complex and delicious, it really is the perfect side dish.
Finally, to fill that ever present, completely separate Dessert Stomach, Carrot Halwa served with pistachios and cream. At this point in the afternoon both Ruman and I thought we couldn’t fit any more in, so we’d just try a bite or two. Fast forward five minutes and the whole thing was gone. The Carrot Halwa is not too sweet, making the cream the perfect balance to the dish. Adding pistachios is a great touch, and the dish works really well.
Darjeeling Express is one of those rare restaurants that upholds incredible values, oozes the love and passion that comes from the owner’s own heart, and is genuinely innovative and novel in its cuisine. I’d recommend a visit wearing a discreet elastic waistband.
12.5% service charge shared equally between the service and kitchen staff.
Value for money: 7/10 (£64.13 total bill including service charge but excluding drinks // £32.07pp – we received a complimentary meal)
Halal Status: All meat served is halal. Alcohol is served.
Address: Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby, London, W18 5PW
Nearest station: Oxford Circus (Hammersmith & City and District lines)
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Reviewed by Zohra