The quest for authenticity quenches thirst and appeases appetite. In search of the genuine home cooking as found in the homes of Kolkata in India, those living in London are pampered with a plethora of options to choose from. Spoilt with the paradox of having too many choices for Indian food in London, so many of us have left our taste buds in sorry states. Not only because of the fiery curry but also because of being baffled by phoney bells and whistles. Darjeeling Express came to our rescue and it made us express our culinary conquest of Indian palates, right in the very heart of Central London.
After our memorable merry making under the Cherry Blossom trees in the Greenwich Park in London, we thought to try our luck on an evidently bustling Saturday evening to dine at Darjeeling Express. A short walk from the Oxford Circus underground station, located in the 3rd floor of the Kingly Court in Carnaby Street, Darjeeling Express has turned out to be a unique Koh-i-noor in the crown of the Indian food kitchen-scape in London.
We have no qualms in expressing that Darjeeling Express did turn us away on previous three occasions when we showed up unannounced at their doorsteps. They value their customer conversions and accordingly their customer reservations. We honestly could not believe our ears when the hostess hesitated initially but managed to give us a table for two with the condition of vacating it in an hour to make way for the party that made a reservation beforehand.
The hunger gods down under roared thunderously as we started scanning their menu of mouth-watering food. The recipes largely kept circling the streets and home foods of Kolkata, the capital of the erstwhile British Raj. Along with the traditional Bengali food of Kolkata, there were quick trips the menu made to Darjeeling and Hyderabad as the dish line-up provided tiny twists in the ingredients inspired by those regions of India.
Cosy, compact, intimate, allowed conversations and not loud. Open kitchen meant that the lady chefs in white aprons were visible while they sprinkled some magic in the dishes we ordered. Not overboard with too much decorations or interior design, the simplicity allowed the focus to be on the food only and not on the frills.
Story becomes history
Don’t you love to share your story over a meal? Even better if the place where you dine has a story to tell about itself too. What started as a passion for home cooking, then led to supper clubs and finally turning out to be the Darjeeling Express is the sweet fruit of an arduous journey made by the founder Asma Khan and her all-girl-gang-of-chefs. No culinary or gastronomic trainings, no fancy fables to tell about being Michelin starred and all – some home cooks got together, started to help each other while they experimented with home cooking of Kolkata and fast forward to where we were sitting and scanning the menu.
Indian hospitality aka customer service
The cosy home feel about the venue made it look more like someone’s home when the owner Asma herself was seen ferrying food to diners’ tables. Enquiring how the food was and exchanging some usual banters made the service feel warmer. It is true that one would rarely come across an Indian restaurant in the UK where the staff were not generally found to be more hospitable and courteous. Darjeeling Express was certainly no exception, what made it to be a step ahead was the fact that the founder herself was taking orders, serving food and also taking care of the accounts!
What we ordered
It was only natural for us to have got carried away. 4th time lucky to have been finally awarded a prized two-seater table without a reservation on a Saturday evening was simply too good to be true. What seemed too good to be true was the menu itself, especially when our gluttony took control of the proceedings. We started with the tantalizing Tangra Chilli Garlic Prawns and some Puchkas. For sides we ordered a Bengali Aloo Dum (Spicy potatoes), Puris (fried bread), brown basmati rice and dal (not seen here). For dessert, we had one Bhapa Doi (Bengali Baked Sweet yoghurt). Last but not the least, what is an Indian meal experience without some hot, flavourful masala chai! Served in the traditional Kolkata way in sustainable clay cups lending its own character to the drink, the malty tea, warming masala, creamy buffalo milk and generous dose of sugar, seems to straddle the line between food and beverage.
And for mains, we had no doubt in selecting the Goat Kosha Mangsho, the slow-cooked Bengali goat curry. The protagonist of the Darjeeling Express menu was this Goat Kosha Mangsho which we haven’t come across in any Indian restaurant in London. Premium priced at a whopping £16, the dish was worth every penny especially with some supple Puris to embrace it with.
Away from its commercial competitors vying to appease the appetite of Indian palate lovers in London, Darjeeling Express seemed to have perfectly positioned itself as the provider of genuine home cooking from the homes and streets of Kolkata, right in the heart of London. Combined with its open kitchen of lady chefs and the sincere supervision of the founder on the shop floor, they will convince any diner to happily pay the premium price for the authentic Bengali home food. Chefs and service are all fine, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Once you devour their cooking once, you will be ready to return for more next time.1