Saturday, 5 August 2017

Darjeeling Express

I must have walked past the entrance to Kingly Court countless times without noticing it; to be perfectly honest with you, I walked past twice without noticing it while I was actually looking for it. Ever the helpful chronicler, you can find it here; sandwiched snugly between Pizza Pilgrims and the Detox Kitchen.

The narrow passageway opens into a foodie Narnia; three levels of bars, restaurants and a shaded little courtyard, a perfect place in which to while away a lazy summer Sunday. I will definitely be back, but this time I was on a mission; I had booked the set menu Sunday lunch at Darjeeling Express; Calcutta Lamb Dum Biryani, a throwback to the restaurant's origins. 

Darjeeling Express started out as a supperclub in the beautiful London home of Asma Khan, a journalist and constitutional lawyer who taught herself to cook by immersing herself in the traditions, techniques and handed-down recipes of her family and her childhood. For Asma, this spans her royal Mughal heritage, Hyderabad and the Calcutta street food she remembers enjoying as a child. 

The restaurant is relaxed and stylishly homely. The lovely Florian Siepert talked us through the wine list (which, if you have ever heard his voice, is an experience in its own right) and recommended the Envinate Albahra Garnacha Tintorera 2015, which stood up to the spices perfectly. 

I admit to being a complete novice at all things wine-related (bar the drinking of it) but he was equally enthusiastic quizzing us about which wines we liked as a starting point as talking terroirs and altitudes with the table next door. He returned not only with the wine but with an equally charming dining companion for us, chef Jonny Rothfield (seen here with Asma, who walks through the dining room regularly, chatting to her guests). 

Our feast began with Papri Chaat, a classic Calcutta street food dish; soft spiced potato and black chickpeas on a bed of crispy papri, dressed with tamarind chutney and topped with sev (fine crispy noodles) and fresh coriander. It was incredibly good; each mouthful a play of salty, sweet, sour, soft, crunchy, fresh, spicy.

Battling with myself to leave room for the dishes to come, next up was the Beetroot and Cashew Samosas; delicate, crisp and light, a world away from the stodgy, oily offerings from your local takeaway. In fact, eating here will ruin a Friday night curry for you forever. This is not commercialised, westernised food; this is authentic Indian cuisine, the kind cooked at home, with love and patience, for friends and family.

The main event was a spectacular lamb biryani; two huge pots, sealed with dough and opened in front of the guests. Asma explained that the art of a perfect biryani is not only in the cooking but in the serving of the dish. There are two layers of rice, the top layer drier and sealing most of the steam beneath it; the trick is to dig deep and mix the layers so that everyone gets a balanced amount of both.

This was served like a home cook after my own heart; unapologetically generous portions piled high on sharing platters to be tucked into at the table. It was outrageously good. By this time we had got chatting to the family next to us and were serving huge, teetering, fragrant spoonfuls across the table to each other. You've got to love the almost magical ability of food to forge a connection between people, be they strangers, friends or family.

Served alongside this were a cooling tomato and cucumber raita, a feisty Bengali tomato, prune and apricot chutney and a wonderful Hyderabadi Mirchi Ka Salaan (the classic chilli and peanut masala accompaniment to biryani) which had us all reaching for our water glasses - repeatedly, as we couldn't stop eating it.

Dessert, after a merciful pause, was a dish usually served on the morning of Eid; Sheer Korma, milk infused with dried dates, served warm with pistachios and vermicelli. This was gentle and comforting; I rather liked it, but you do have to be a fan of warm milk, which not everyone on our table was.

Asma and her all-female team of wonderful home cooks have created something very special; a restaurant as relaxed and welcoming as the house of a close friend - a friend who happens to be a genius in the kitchen.

To share a meal here is a strangely soothing, almost restorative experience, as well as a culinary one. It's quite an achievement and I absolutely can't wait to go back.

Yours, feeling part of a new family,
London Girl About Town xx