Asma Khan’s acclaimed Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express began life as a 12-cover supper club in her Kensington home. In a sure sign of her rise to prominence since that quiet beginning, this spring Khan became the first British chef to be featured in the cult Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.
I first met Khan in the summer of 2013 on the steps of Cinnamon Club, Vivek Singh’s restaurant in Westminster, where she was hosting a supper club. I remember the Kolkata-style chicken murgh biryani – aromatic and rich layers of perfectly cooked rice, meat and spices. This family recipe takes years to master and hours to cook, which is why, at Darjeeling Express, biryani is cooked only for special Sunday feasts. I also remember Khan’s energy, humour, honesty, generosity and passion, which have only strengthened over the years – she speaks out regularly against sexism and racism in the restaurant industry. It was obvious even then that the supper club was destined to become something more.
During a nine-month residency at The Sun & 13 Cantons pub in Soho, Khan and her all-female team (none of whom had ever trained in a professional kitchen before) graduated from home cooks to chefs. In 2017, Darjeeling Express became a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, located on the top floor of Carnaby Street’s Kingly Court.
The space isn’t big, but it is cosy and welcoming, with warm lights, earthy tones and plants hanging from the ceiling beams. Black-and-white photos of Khan’s hometown of Aligarh are framed above a long dining table – the latter harking back to the restaurant’s supper club roots.
The cuisine is the same that Khan grew up with at home in India: a mix of Kolkata and royal Mughlai recipes. There are no compromises on taste to make the dishes more accessible to western palates. The menu changes regularly to incorporate seasonal ingredients, but a few signature dishes are always on offer. Tangra chilli garlic prawns (£8) pay homage to the unique spices used in Kolkata’s Chinatown. Puchkas (£7) are a bestseller: crunchy shells of wheat and semolina filled with potato, black chickpeas and tangy tamarind water. Channa chaat (£7.50) is a fiery street snack of chickpeas, green chillies, tamarind sauce and red onions topped with sev.
I recommend ordering at least two main courses to share. My favourites are the murgh ka saalan (£14), a boneless chicken curry cooked in dill and tomato sauce, and prawn malaikari (£16), tiger prawns cooked in coconut milk. Puri (£5) – Indian fried flatbread – goes well with both. For dessert, try the gajjar ka halwa (£5), a wonderful carrot halwa garnished with pistachios and served with cream.
The spectrum of Indian dishes you can try here is vast and grows as quickly as Khan’s ambitions to support charitable causes close to her heart, including Second Daughters, a fund she set up to fund the education of second daughters in Indian families, who are often considered a burden. No dream is too small for Asma Khan and I am excited to see what she has in store next.
Giulia Mulè is a food and travel writer based in London who is passionate about sharing food photography on her Instagram feed (@mondomulia) and blog Mondomulia (mondomulia.com). Originally from Rome, Mulè has spent over a decade living in London and travelling the world. In her spare time, she organises brunch meet-ups with @IGBrunchClub and fundraising events with @CreatingForGood – a collective of Instagrammers who share their creative skills to raise money for selected charities.