Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Darjeeling Express

Home Comforts in Soho

Methi Chicken, polao and a side salad

I’m glad central London finally has an Indian restaurant like Darjeeling Express. I’ve been eating at various Bengali (read: Bangladeshi) restaurants in the British capital for a while, and most of what I’d recommend is in East London. While many of these places do great food, like Amar Gaon or Dhaka Biryani, they’re small and geared towards casual meals. But Darjeeling Express is a fully-fledged restaurant, and somewhere I could go if I needed a smarter dinner venue. Even better is the fact that I wouldn’t be making any compromises on the food - the kitchen here produces amazing Bengali (and other Indian) dishes, despite its trendy Carnaby Street location. 

Fuchka - crispy shells filled with spiced potato and chickpeas,
with a side of tamarind water to pour over

On my first visit, I was pleasantly surprised by how similar the fuchka was to what I could get in Dhaka - and significantly better than anything I’ve had in East London. The chotpoti filling, made from potato and chickpea, was spiced exactly as it would be in many Bengali homes. This is no surprise, given that Darjeeling Express has its roots in a home-based supper club of the same name. I’m glad that chef-proprietor Asma Khan has opened up a brick-and-mortar venue, because she and her all-female team cook excellent food - the kind that should reach a wider audience. I can vouch for the authenticity of the dishes I am personally familiar with, and would recommend coming here if you’re looking for home comforts. 

Tangra Garlic Chilli Prawns - tangy and garlicky

The menu is laid out in a Western format, with food divided up between starters, mains, sides and desserts. Standout dishes span the first two courses. Apart from the fuchka I’ve already mentioned, I also love the Tangra Chill Garlic Prawns and the Mutton Shikampuri Kabab. The prawns are an Indo-Chinese concoction, and you get quite a large number (see photo above) for £8. The kebabs are cheaper for £5, and probably better value given the two large patties you’re served (see photo below). Think of a super-smooth minced meat and lentil body, with a creamy hung yoghurt centre, all contained within a deep-fried outer shell. I can see something like this becoming my go-to order, despite my love for fuchka. 

Mutton Shikampuri Kabab
Expect a centre filled with creamy hung yoghurt

Of course, not everything is perfection. While the chotpoti in the fuchka I keep talking about was great, the shell was a little stodgy - something the restaurant tells me they have now changed. Also, the tamarind water lacked any discernible kick. The Papri Chaat, a similar dish of chotpoti on a crispy shell served with chutney, was a little too sweet for my liking (photo below). Unfortunately, my friends agreed, so our double order of this dish - each a generous portion at £6 - languished at the table. Until I finished off the last two bites of course, because I don’t believe in wasting food! 

Papri Chaat - a little too sweet for my liking

Thankfully, the criticisms to be made about Darjeeling Express are small. For example, I like the restaurant interior: with it’s beige colouring and countless terracotta potted plants, it reminds me of an aunt’s balcony and roof garden. A large corner of the room houses the open kitchen, which looks out into a dining area of freestanding tables and booth-style seating. But it's a small space and it gets LOUD, with minimal soft furnishings to absorb the noise. I wonder if it would be worth playing ghazals in the background, just to get people speaking more quietly. 

Goat Kosha Mangsho
On the side, Hyderabadi Mirchi ka Salaan

Of course, none of this really detracts from the main event - which is the food. The most popular dish with everyone I’ve brought here has been the Goat Kosha Mangsho (photo above). A bowl full of this with polao for £16 is a dream, especially since it’s cooked exactly how my family would make it back home. Think chunks of melt-in-your-mouth goat in thick, comforting gravy. Despite having recipes, I’ve never been able to produce a satisfactory version myself. I guess that means I'll have to keep coming back to Darjeeling Express! Speaking of dishes I can’t cook, the beef, or Degh Gosht, reminded me of me - though not in a good way. This dish was richer and had more umami than the goat, and tasted a bit like my own preparation of beef. But my opinion of my own beef curry isn’t very high, and I wasn’t a big fan of this iteration either. 

Venison Kofta

Another slight letdown was the Venison Kofta (photo above), which seems to be inconsistently delivered. It’s cooked with shikar masala, something I’m not familiar with, but I loved the dish the first time I tried it. The kofta came in a rich and tomato-y sauce, the spicing familiar yet unique. I recommended it to a friend on a subsequent visit, but she was disappointed with the watery, toned down version she was served. At £14 though, it’s the cheapest meat on the menu. 

Methi Chicken

The final highlight from the mains is the Methi Chicken (photo above), served with polao for £14. Slightly fruity, it was the lightest curry I’ve tried on the menu, and it won universal praise at our table. It was my other half’s favourite dish - and so I must now go and experiment with methi and chicken in my own kitchen. I believe the use of methi (or fenugreek) with meat is common enough in West Bengal - but it wasn’t something I grew up with in Bangladesh. The restaurant has a popular enough following that I would recommend booking, and don’t expect any walk-in tables on weekend evenings until things cool down. Lunch and weeknight dinners, as usual, are a little less crowded. For a group meal, I booked a week in advance, and really appreciated the restaurant’s flexibility on the night. Our numbers fluctuated between 7 and 8 people, and one of our party didn’t order a full meal due to health reasons. However, we weren’t made to feel bad about this for one second. The wait staff were great too, always at hand when we wanted to order more drinks or look at dessert menus. The strain of running a busy restaurant became apparent as the night went on though, and they were looking rather tired by the time we left. 

Gajjar ka Halwa served with cream

That night was my first time trying dessert at Darjeeling Express, and I have to admit this part of the menu isn’t particularly ambitious. Your choices are carrot halua, stewed apricots or steamed yoghurt, priced at £5 each. The steamed yoghurt, or Bhapa Doi, was unavailable - something that happens to items on the menu here now and again. The carrot halua, or Gajjar ka Halwa (photo above), was a bit small and somewhat underwhelming. It lacked the rich sweetness that I expected, and seemed a bit like my diabetic uncle’s version of the dish. The stewed apricots, or Hyderabadi Khoobani ka Meetha (photo below), tasted amazing and was my clear favourite. I admit this dish was new to me - but I loved the translucent fruit cooked in sweet spices, made even better by stirring through cream. Definitely the dessert I’d go for myself next time. 

Hyderabadi Khoobani ka Meetha, also served with cream

And I do see myself coming back here - in fact I’m adding Darjeeling Express to my list of "returnable" places. I have yet to try the vegetarian mains and prawn malaikari on the menu, so there’s more to explore here. I know I’ve made some criticisms of the dishes, but I’ve been a picky Bengali - and honestly a meal here will leave you very satisfied. A quick note about the mains portions - I may have complained about them being small in earlier Instagram posts, but they seem to have gotten bigger since. Each main is a generous serving for one, though I wouldn’t quite share one between two. I’ve mentioned prices throughout the review, but essentially you can have three courses without drinks here for under £30. This is great value for central London - and so I really hope Darjeeling Express becomes a fixture on London restaurant scene. 

Food: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Atmosphere: 6/10
Value: 8/10

Final Score: 8/10

Contact Information
A: Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby, London, W1B 5PW
T: +44 (0) 20 7287 2828

NB. The final score, while influenced by the sub-scores, is a qualitative reflection of my overall impression the establishment.

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