Chef Abdul Yaseen gives me first a great big hug then a grand tour, much in the manner of a friend showing you proudly around their new manor. And this guy has just reason to be proud: his debut restaurant is, quite frankly, a banger. An elephant appears in the logo, and a growing herd stands proudly on a shelf close to the reception desk. I make a mental note to add another to their number on my next visit.
Darbaar by Abdul takes name and inspiration from the largest, grandest room in India’s palaces, whose royal cuisine the restaurant’s eponymous chef-patron showcases with his menus. Abdul’s lengthy stint with The Cinnamon Group has instilled in him an uncompromising drive for excellence and innovation in all that he does. He’s the sort of chap for whom it just doesn’t occur that anything less could be an option.
And maintaining flawless standards when catering to 220 covers is no easy ask. In fact, one might well opine that it’s asking for trouble, especially when the restaurant’s city location invites a clientele whose standards are as exacting as their expectations are high.
What I – and indeed probably my fellow diners – was not expecting is the snazzy robot toilets; not quite royal thrones but comfy perches nonetheless, with heated seats, myriad water jets and self-closing lids that turn a uneventful loo break into an entertaining interlude.
Aside from that smart ‘smallest room’, Darbaar comprises another pair of diminutive areas – an intimate chef’s table which affords a select group both privacy and a glimpse into the vast and gleaming kitchen, and a private dining room whose elegant metallic wallpaper seems to bear that majestic patina of age in spite of the venue being less that four months old. I’m told it’ll soon host a high-profile event or three, and I can’t say I’m surprised.
In the cosy confines of the bar, I’m handed a ‘Darbaar Royale’, a flute of Prosecco dashed with a drop of bright blue-hued liqueur. Then we move through to the main dining room; a big and beautiful space with theatrical swags of velvet, golden metal light fittings that resemble opening flowers, and an open kitchen. We don’t even glance at a menu, ’cause when a chef of Yaseen’s calibre offers to feed you, you should feel safe in their hands and privileged to just go with the flow.
First to hit the table is that curryhouse classic: poppadoms (or papads, as they’re more authentically billed here) and chutneys. The jammy mango number is brilliantly Bengali, the custom of consuming these items pre-meal less so – they’re traditionally taken towards the end of a feast, to sweeten the mouth. But no matter; used to scoop relishes mango and curry leaf-tempered tomato, plus a mustard-dressed sprouted pulse salad, diminutive masala papads and Quavers-like puffed tapioca wafers are the perfect appetiser.
Next comes a chilli chicken-topped pizza-esque flatbread whose heat level lives up to that indicated in its name. A fun concept and soft, flame-scorched naan dough; a waggish wordsmith might even refer to it as a ‘bon-naanza’, and it is indeed thus.
Abdul approaches like some sort of culinary magician, carrying a smoking, mirrored mini tandoor. For his next trick, he pulls a pair of skewers from its depths, each spearing a trio of t’riffic treats – Kentish lamb seekh kebab, salmon tikka and chicken ‘pasanda’ (here referring to a favoured cut of meat and not the sweet sauce on so many curryhouse menus). Paneer appears too; everything disappears rather rapidly, anointed with a verdant hari chutney whose vibrant flavour would turn any lesser chef green with envy.
We might be well jel of the mains the city lads on the adjacent table are mainlining, but we don’t have to wait long for our own. Abdul’s decided we need to sample his Bengali-style wild Madagascan prawn; served in the shell, the grilled crustacean is made tantalisingly tangy with mustard, its own inherent sweet creaminess enhanced with coconut.
It’s worthy of applause, but with barely a pause a deluge of dishes rain down on the tabletop: butter chicken, biryani, Rajasthani rabbit in corn sauce, a selection of sample-sized sides, a bread basket. We are two and the feast is for at least four. But we are also small girls whose appetites are far larger than our bellies belie. It would be untruthful to say that a single scrap remained.
Anyone less-than wild about game should hop over to Darbaar and order a bit of bunny, because the baked rabbit here is more moist and succulent than the finest roast chicken you’ve ever eaten; its flavour fine and barely funkier than that fowl’s. It comes atop a kernel-studded corn sauce that’s sweet, rich, and pepped up with pickled beets and radishes – a triumph not only of taste but of texture.
It would be fair to say that butter chicken is done to death in Britain; if would also be fair to say that rarely is it done so well as here. Velvety gravy gets a great big whack of umami from kasuri methi – no need for newfangled, novel additions like miso – chargrilled chicken chunks imparting even more smoky savour. Every last drop of that sauce, and Marmite-y kali dal, should be swooshed up with shockingly-garlicky naan or buttery, wheaty pieces of paratha – both, if you’re a right royal greedyguts.
We definitely don’t need the Hyderabadi dum kid goat biryani but we want the Hyderabadi dum kid goat biryani, especially when the lid is lifted from the clay pot and the aromatic steam gets our nostrils all a-twitch with the scent of kewra, rose, saffron and sweet meat. Legend has it that if you throw a handful of adroitly-cooked biryani in the air, the rice grains should all fall separately. Of course we’re not willing to risk wasting even the smallest morsel by putting Abdul’s effort to the test, but I suspect that would be the case.
Dessert is dainty and by this stage that’s definitely a good thing. The same could be said of each component on the pretty platter – chat masala-laced berries, a nicely icy matka kulfi whose love-it-or-hate-it saffron flavour I adore, and a marvellously-moist chai-spiced carrot cake whose shrikhand topping emulates classic cream cheese frosting but adds a little extra.
Were we slightly less ready to head straight to bed after such a spread, we’d retire to the bar instead and put the intriguing list of smoked cocktails through its paces. But there’s no doubting we’ll return to do just that and to dine again – Abdul is still settling into his debut venue, and everything already-excellent is set to get even better.
- Darbaar by Abdul, 1 Snowden Street, Broadgate West, London EC2A 2DQ darbaarrestaurants.com
- To read more about Rajasthani food, click here
- To read more about Indian-inspired cocktails, click here
- To read more about Indian desserts and sweetmeats, click here