Darjeeling Express: Asma Khan on London’s hottest Indian restaurant

Asma Khan (c) Charlotte Hu-

There’s no doubting Asma Khan’s drive. From humble beginnings hosting Darjeeling Express supperclubs in her not-so-humble, beautiful South Kensington home, she shot to the top of the London foodie hit list with unreservedly authentic Indian cuisine; her Calcutta-Hyderabad-Rajput recipes drawn from multiple generations of family heritage.

Since founding Darjeeling Express in 2012, she’s already taken her show on the road, catering for glittering international events and popping up everywhere from the National Portrait Gallery to the Michelin-starred Cinnamon Club. But now it’s finally time to lay down roots. This summer, Asma will open her first bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Carnaby Street’s Kingly Court – a cosy home for her homely Indian food.

Having know Asma from way back when, I couldn’t be prouder of what she’s achieved – and I couldn’t wait to get the full scoop from this hugely-talented horse’s mouth…

To date, your longest cooking stint has been a nine-month residency at Soho’s Sun & 13 Cantons – how did you progress to a restaurant ‘proper’?

The discussion began during that residency. The experience gave me and my team a good idea of what to expect if we ran a restaurant. But the jump from hosting supperclubs to a permanent full-time restaurant is a very big one, so I spent many months thinking about it before I made a pitch for the Kingly Court unit.

Restaurant acquisition and set-up is no picnic – who have been your most valued mentors?

Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon Club, who invited me to host a supperclub at his beautiful Grade II-listed restaurant. It was a game-changer, a confidence-booster, and a real honour to be the first ‘outsider’ to cook there; especially just eight months after our debut supperclub.

Over the years, Vivek has proven to be a source of encouragement and advice. He was very supportive when we made a bid for the Carnaby site – which is in the same courtyard as his own Cinnamon Soho.

That whole Carnaby area is very ‘foodie’ – what are your favourite local hotspots?

My favourite is OKA in Kingly Court. I also love the paneer kabab at Le Bab, and breakfast at Dishoom Carnaby. Further afield, I go to Soho’s Hoppers and Covent Garden’s Talli Joe.

Hoppers restaurant appams Soho London

Hoppers

You’ve always forged your own path, and I expect no different from the restaurant. What will mark it out from other Indian eateries?

I plan to continue cooking in the same way we have from the day we started. Darjeeling Express offers very traditional Indian regional dishes, based on family recipes. Our aim is not just to feed our guests, but to nourish their souls through food cooked with patience and love.

Although of course the economics of a Central London restaurant demand a degree of table turning, we want ours to be a place where you come to have a memorable dining experience without being made to feel rushed. It goes against the current tide, but I don’t want people to have to queue to eat – so we’ll take 60% of our bookings through online reservations.

Is the thought of moving from pop-up to full restaurant service daunting?

The transition is undoubtedly a challenge, although the pub residency gave us nine months’ service experience. I’m also delighted to welcome a highly experienced general manager. It’s karma: he gave me my first job – a supperclub when I began my business in 2012 – and now he’s going to take charge of my front of house and bar! Hopefully together with him, we’ll quickly get into a good  rhythm.

Indian ‘small plates’ and ‘tapas’ are currently en vogue. Will you tweak your own presentation to match this service style?

No. Darjeeling Express food is not modernised, twisted or inspired. Our all-female kitchen creates homestyle Indian food. None of us are trained chefs; we cook the way our mums and grandmothers taught us. We will serve food in the order in which it was ordered, and in the way it should be eaten. We have 56 covers and will not expect people to perch precariously on bar stools as they eat!

Darjeeling Express papri chaat Indian street food snack Asma Khan plated

So how will your menu work?

It’ll be small, like the one from our Sun and 13 Cantons residency, and will change every few months – earlier if I get bored cooking a particular dish! Starters will be dominated by the Calcutta streetfood and chaat that I love. Vegetarian options will mostly use organic British produce in season, and all dishes will come with rice, puri, or roti.

On Sundays we won’t offer the usual menu – instead, we’ll have brunch from 12-4pm and showcase a few favourites from my supperclub menus. Think haleem, dum biryani, Calcutta kati rolls, momos, and Anglo Indian aloo chops.

Which dishes are you most excited about introducing Londoners to?

The simpler home foods we eat in India: dal and rice with beetroot chop and smoked tomato and chilli bharta. Slow-cooked meat dishes from western Uttar Pradesh, where my father comes from. Real food that Indians eat at home, as cooked by mums and aunts – not stuff drowning in cream and overwhelmed with nut garnishes.

Will decor be as authentic as the food?

We used Alessio Nardi for interiors. He’s very talented, but it was a bit of a gamble – he hadn’t worked on an Indian restaurant project before, and has a tendency to create very modern designs. So we spent many hours going through pictures; both of my home in India, and those I felt reflected the look and feel I wanted.

I don’t want to give away too much about the decor as yet, but I was delighted with his design – he totally nailed it, and his attention to detail was brilliant. It’s light and welcoming; miles from that heavy, broody colonial look that’s been done to death!

As for tableware, we’re working with Maham Anjum. I’m delighted she’s found the time to make us some items for us. A factory in Stoke is making bespoke plates for the restaurant, which is really exciting.

Authenticity is key for you – where do you recommend for true Indian food?

East Ham for South Indian and dosas. Diwana on Drummond Street behind Euston station for chaat. I also recently discovered a couple of decent Sylheti Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane: Amar Gaon, Gram Bangla and Café Grill. I also love a vegetarian café in Alperton called Africana, run by Gujarati women.

So when can we come and try your own place out?

I would not dare to say a date! With building jobs that’s always risky. But I hope to open in June.

  • To read more about Darjeeling Express’s Cinnamon Club pop-up, click here
  • To read more about Darjeeling Express’s Calcutta street food, click here
  • To read more about Darjeeling Express’s Indo-Chinese food, click here

Image credits: Charlotte Hui; Kalyan Karmakar

 

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