Judging a restaurant on more than how good it looks on Instagram
Update 31/7/2017 – added remarks about the bone marrow to the details of the goat curry
An opinion column published on the newly launched London version of Eater caused a small stir among the capital’s restaurant watchers. The piece railed against the pernicious effects of Instagram and social media ‘influencers’ on our restaurant culture. Although its heart was more or less in the right place, the piece somehow managed to miss Instagram’s most obvious negative effect – its overriding focus on things that look good. If you want to garner followers and ‘likes’ for your food photos on Instagram, then you’d better be posting photos of attractive dishes. ‘Ugly’ foods need not apply.
This sounds like such a trite observation as to be hardly worth mentioning. But if you’re one of the increasing number of people using Instagram to help you decide where to eat out, then this overbearing focus on appearance above all else, both in the eye of the photographer and the consumer, is more pernicious than you may realise. The insidious infantilising effect in equating superficial aesthetic attractiveness with worthiness, desirability and deliciousness is dumbing down of the highest order.
The many culinary traditions of India are now generally recognised as one of the world’s great cuisines, one whose appeal transcends borders in a way that few others can rival. And yet you wouldn’t know this from Instagram, where the brown/earthy monotones and relatively formless composition of many well-known Indian dishes loses out in popularity to multi-hued poke, oozing cheeseburgers and virtuous avocado on toast.
Darjeeling Express, the permanent incarnation of an Indian supper club, has made very few concessions to photogenicism as far as I can tell. The interior of this restaurant is arguably more attractive the food, with its high ceilings, airy feel and peach-terracotta hues. That’s no bad thing.
First things first
Having said all that, there is a certain aesthetic beauty to be found in the mutton kebab, which arrived in an unexpectedly spherical form. The crisp yet light and wafer thin battered exterior contained an almost sauce-like minced meat filling. Gently earthy and peppery in taste, the mince was made even better by the sauce, served on the side, of umami tomatoes and musky sweet tamarinds. This dish only seems to make fleeting appearances on the menu at Darjeeling Express. If you see it, grab it.
Prawn malaikari resembled some Thai and Malaysian curries with its mild, creamy, light and sprightly sauce. Unlike many curries, this malaikari didn’t just rely on its sauce for its appeal. The prawns themselves were cooked just-so with a crisp bite and a yieldingly tender follow-through. Although they could arguably have done with a little more springy bounciness, I’m not going to argue with a curry so adeptly well-formed.
Dal in a so-so sauce, allegedly tamarind, only just about veered away from mushiness. Curry leaves imparted a surprising and utterly beguiling taste akin to dried mango – its fleeting presence was much missed as soon as it was gone.
Although the doi wasn’t as spectacular as the similar-ish yoghurt dessert at the nearby Kricket, it still had its charms. Smooth and lightly creamy with a caramel-like taste, it was akin to a fudge but without the teeth-sticking tackiness.
Going back for seconds
The shells of the puchka were a little too stodgy, blunting their crunchiness. The hearty and nutty filling of fluffy potato and chickpeas was a winner though, as was the tamarind water. Served on the side and applied as you see fit, it added a tingly, prickly kick.
The papri chaat was almost like an inverted puchka, with thick and hearty mini flatbreads topped with chickpeas and potato. It wasn’t bad, but it wouldn’t have been far less satisfying without the treacley prune-like chutney and crisp, puffed sev topping.
The slow-cooked goat is unlikely to ever win any beauty contests and it’s all the better for it. Tender and occasionally sinewy with the odd seam of connective tissue, it was the perfect meaty conveyor for the the rich umami of the sauce. The hint of star anise was more pronounced in the earthy, lightly oily puddle of meat juices at the bottom of the bowl – perfect for spooning over the firm, large grained basmati rice that accompanies every main. Don’t forget to scoop out the quiveringly, sumptuously rich globules of bone marrow – even without everything else, it’d be worth the price of admission alone.
A gravy of onions and chillies may look like a nanotech singularity, a von Neumann-esque gray goo, but it was actually a side dish full of unexpected nuance. With hints of smoke and nut, as well as a trace of underlying sweetness, it was kinda like a cross between baba ghanoush and satay. Punchy green chillies added a prickly, smouldering heat that quickly grew into a fiery blaze that overwhelmed everything else – or at least it did on my Westernish palate. Even so, this unassuming side dish is still one of the best things I’ve eaten, thus far, this year.
Loosely packed and fine-grained carrot halwa was more like a cake and not at all like the tahini-based Middle Eastern halvas that I’m most familiar with. Its mild vegetal sweetness and small-grain softness was, unsurprisingly, very much in the vein of a carrot cake – a resemblance furthered by the thin milky cream served in a small ladle on the side. It was pleasurable, but also left me hankering for a doorstop wedge of carrot cake.
A far more remarkable way to finish a meal at Darjeeling Express is to have the masala chai. This was a brew far, far removed from the cookie-cutter masala chais usually served up in London. Smooth and gently milky with a peppery scent and a smoky finish that tickled the back of the throat, it was not just a melodic joy. It was a firm rebuttal to every lazy chai bag and Nespresso pod after-dinner hot drink that are forgotten about as soon as they’re finished.
Texturally, the chilli garlic prawns were just as pleasing as those used in the malaikari. The crisp bite and yieldingly tender follow-through made the tame non-presence of the chilli and garlic all the more disappointing though.
Paneer samosas bore an unfortunate initial resemblance to crab rangoon, that paragon of Chinese-American takeaway chum, with its unmemorable pastry and the cottage cheese-like texture to its paneer filling. It turned out to be far more satisfying than I expected though, with little slivers of punchy green chilli livening up the light and wispy cheese. The heat of the chilli dipping sauce and the musky sweetness of the tamarind dipping sauce shouldn’t be seen as optional extras – without them, these samosas wouldn’t have been anywhere as satisfying.
I’ve become somewhat sceptical about the use of expensive meats in burgers and meatballs – their defining qualities rarely survive being minced and smashed about. The venison koftas, or just meatballs really, managed to defy the odds with their earthiness, coarse grind and reasonable levels of moistness. The tomato sauce smothering them won’t win any awards and leaned a little too much towards the sharp side with not quite enough umami or sweetness to balance things out. It’s not Darjeeling Express’ strongest dish, but it’s more than good enough and could probably keep your semi-racist nan from the provinces happy.
The roti wasn’t absorbent enough to soak up any sauces nor stiff enough to act as a scoop, but it was still a winner thanks to its maltiness and heartiness.
A dessert of stewed apricots served with a thin and milky cream might seem odd at first, but it’s really just a summery pie or cobbler without the pastry. Gently, if somewhat generically sweet, the crispness of the chilled fruit proved to be suitably refreshing along with the cream. An apt dessert for the sweltering sweatbox that London often turns into during the summer.
The masala chai was just as good as it was before.
The food at Darjeeling Express doesn’t break any new ground, but in this case that’s no bad thing. The food here is homely yet accomplished with enough deftness and depth to show up the average curry house for the gussied-up slop merchants that they so often are.
What stops Darjeeling Express from getting its rightful Four Star rating isn’t the food, but the service. Although the proprietor herself is warm, welcoming and friendly, the rest of the waitering team needs rectification pronto. Or rather teams – with three different teams across my three visits, all varying wildly in warmth and efficiency, the front of house is clearly in a state of flux.
I’d be tempted to overlook or forgive this operational sloppiness if it wasn’t for the policy towards walk-ins. Although walk-ins are apparently welcome, according to the restaurant’s website, being turned away across multiple walk-in attempts in the late afternoon/early evening, even when multiple tables appear to be empty, suggests otherwise.
All this shouldn’t dissuade you from eating at Darjeeling Express. There are dishes here worth singing about. Just remember to book ahead and eat with your mouth, not your Instagram filters.
What to order: Mutton kebab; Prawn malaikari; Goat; Onion and chilli gravy; Stewed apricots with cream; Masala chai
What to skip: Possibly the dal
Name: Darjeeling Express
Address: Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby Street, London W1B 5PW
Phone: 020 7287 2828
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon – 15.00 and 18.00-22.00. Sunday 13.30-16.00.
Average cost for one, including soft drinks: £45 approx.