Monday, January 22, 2024

Daru (Washington, DC)

Daru Restaurant
1451 Maryland Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
Mon 01/22/2024, 07:45p-10:20p

Daru Exterior

I was in the nation's capital recently for a two-week business trip, and the first place I checked out was Daru, a spot that had been recommended to me a number of times by industry folks in the District, including those at Allegory and Trouble Bird. Opened in August 2021, the restaurant-slash-bar serves updated takes on Indian fare, and takes its name from desi daru, a moonshine-style beverage made from molasses. The principals here are Chef Suresh Sundas and Dante Datta, both of whom have been involved in the DC dining scene for over a decade (they're joined by silent partner Calvin Kim).

About the Partners: A native of Nepal, Chef Sundas hails from Kathmandu, and graduated from Panchayat Higher Secondary School in 1999, after which he achieved a bachelor's degree in commerce from Tribhuvan University in 2002. He ended up immigrating to the United States in 2007, and subsequently found employment in DC's Indian dining scene. He would join the team at Ashok Bajaj's Rasika, under Chef Vikram Sunderam, and helped open Rasika West End, which bowed in March 2012. Sundas became tandoor chef there, and in the process, met future business Dante Datta.

Datta was born in Silver Spring, Maryland to parents from West Bengal. He grew up in Bethesda, graduating from Walter Johnson High School, and attended college at the University of Maryland, College Park. He then toiled in finance, but when he turned 27, decided that he wanted to open a bar. Datta thus began working part-time at Ping Pong Dim Sum in Chinatown to learn the ropes. From there, he became a bartender at nearby Italian spot Bibiana, then joined the opening team for Rasika West End in March 2012. He would leave the modern Indian eatery in December 2015 to become GM at Derek Brown's much-lauded Columbia Room. However, Datta decamped in early 2018 and later took on the bar manager position at Ellē in Mount Pleasant, which had just opened that January.

Sundas and Datta conceptualized Daru all the way back in 2017, and in fact, it was actually called Daruwalla early on. The two announced their plans for the restaurant in January 2019, and in April, they previewed the spot at the New Kitchens on the Block event. A pop-up was held at Green Zone at the end of January 2020, but further such events were of course hampered by the pandemic. During the pre-opening period, Sundas also found work at Maydan, while Datta took on posts at Reveler's Hour and Bresca.

Daru finally grand-opened on August 3rd, 2021 and quickly found an audience. In April 2022, it was awarded a Bib Gourmand from Michelin, which has been retained. That July, the place was deemed "New Restaurant of the Year" at the RAMMY Awards (Sundas was also nominated for "Rising Culinary Star of the Year"), while in September, it landed on Bon Appétit's list of the "50 Best New Restaurants" in the US.

Daru Interior
Daru takes over the home of the longstanding Star Grocery, and obviously, the space has been completely redone, with the bar serving as the focal point.

Daru Menu Daru Beverage List
The menu features Sundas' renditions of Indian classics along with new creations, and even has a Nepalese influence given his background. Drink-wise, you get South Asian-inspired cocktails, a handful of beers, and a small-but-fairly-interesting wine list. Click for larger versions.

Mango Shrimp Bhel
Mango Shrimp Bhel [$16.00] | Cashew, Mustard Seed, Puffed Rice
We got off to a strong start. The shrimp were spot-on texturally, and not overcooked at all, as I'd feared. They also showed off a lovely smoke and seasoning, and married easily with the light, crispy bhelpuri and fruitiness of the mango. And intriguingly, I even detected some vaguely Cantonese-y flavors in there.

Spicy Nawabi Duck Kebab
Spicy Nawabi Duck Kebab [$14.00] | Caramelized Onion, Green Chili
The duck kabob was also a winner thanks to its familiar, zingy spicing and creeping heat, all of which just made me want to keep going back for more.

Mountain of the Moon
Mountain of the Moon [$15.00] | Nilgiris India Dry Gin, Plum, Sage, Whey, Lemon Oil
My first cocktail came recommended by my server, and she knew what she was talking about. I tasted the sweetness of stone fruit up front, which led to bitter, botanical nuances and a back end loaded with citrus, all while the whey tended to soften things.

Scallops Moilee
Scallops Moilee [$16.00] | Coconut, Curry Leaf, Gun Powder Masala
Scallops arrived well-textured and well-caramelized, their brine complemented by the back-and-forth between the growing, prickly heat of milagai podi and the softly sweet nature of the coconut.

Bison Momo
Bison Momo [$12.00] | Scallion, Sesame, Sichuan Peppercorn
Steamed dumplings featured some delectable spicing that was moderated by their substantial, yet still delicate wrappers. They were certainly tasty alone, but the piquancy of that sauce really did complete the package.

Artemesiac [$15.00] | Aged Rum, Grilled Pineapple, Génépy, Feni, Lime, Salt, Black Lemon Bitters
My second cocktail showcased a multifaceted fruitiness countered by herbal, medicinal elements, while the finish was all about lingering tropical notes.

Portobello Mushroom Choila
Portobello Mushroom Choila [$12.00] | Grilled Tomato, Red Chili, Sichuan Peppercorn, Labneh
This riff on a Nepalese staple paired earthy 'shrooms with a delightfully fruity heat and plenty of crunchy bits, with the yogurt serving as a moderating force.

Ragda Pattice
Ragda Pattice [$12.00] | Beetroot, Potato, Ginger Chili, Sweet Yogurt, Yellow Lentil
Another surprise favorite was the ragda patties. The crux here was how the dish's potato and lentil base evened out the sweetness of the beet. It really was a delicious combination of savory and sweet flavors, keenly accented by the zestiness of what I believe was mint chutney.

Bandit Queen
Bandit Queen [$15.00] | Two Indies Rum, Garam Masala, Bonal, Sichuan Amaro, Tamarind, Mole
This next cocktail did a great job balancing the signature sweet-n-sour character of tamarind with bittersweet, herbal components and a healthy dosing of savory spices.

Wild Mushroom Biriyani (Parda Closed)
Wild Mushroom Biriyani
Wild Mushroom Biriyani [$18.00] | Cremini, Shiitake, Mace, Apricot, Served with Raita
A parda-style biryani was another favorite, and likely the finest biryani I've experienced. I loved the dish's familiar, yet potent spicing, which was further heightened by the woodsiness of those mushrooms. The included pomegranate-studded raita served as a cooling counterpoint to the rice, and I was a big fan of that bread "veil," too.

Za'atar Olive Naan
Za'atar Olive Naan [$4.00]
And speaking of bread, I was a big fan of the naan as well. It had a wonderfully fluffy-crisp consistency, and I was smitten by the complex spicing imparted by the za'atar, which made the flatbread stand out from the norm.

Chakra Phool
Chakra Phool [$15.00] | Feni, Cognac, Apple Brandy, Roasted Star Anise, Peychaud's
The was the booziest cocktail of the bunch, demonstrating a nose filled with citrus and anise, while the palate was all about dark, almost grape-y fruit, alongside alcoholic heat, citrus, caramel, and a scotch-like smoke.

Striped Bass Paturi
Striped Bass Paturi [$28.00] | Turmeric, Red Chili, Hung Yogurt, Makrut, Served with Kale Kichidhi
The banana leaf-wrapped bass was another highlight, with the fish arriving juicy and supple, with a fantastic sour spice. It was accompanied by a tangy, tomato-ish sort of condiment, as well as a delightfully homey, vegetal khichdi, apparently a nod to a dish that the Chef's mother used to make for him.

Black Daal Burrata
Black Daal Burrata [$9.00] | Asofetida, Kashmiri Chili, Ghee
An asafoetida-boosted dal had all the earthy, nutty flavors I was looking for, as well as a marked sweetness that combined well with the cool, creamy cheese.

Lasooni Lamb Chops
Lasooni Lamb Chops [$18.00] | Black Garlic, Pink Peppercorn, Dahi Yogurt
Lamb came out properly tender, with a mouthwatering sour spice that linked up swimmingly with the coolness of that yogurt. The potatoes were also commendable thanks to their spot-on seasoning.

Sham Valley Punch
Sham Valley Punch [$15.00] | Torontel Pisco, Apricot, Darjeeling Tea, Lemon, Orange Blossom, Milk-Washed
My final cocktail was this clarified punch, a soft, smooth concoction with a commixture of cooling, medicinal, fruity, and anise-like flavors all in harmony.

Wok Fried Cabbage
Wok Fried Cabbage [$8.00] | Szechuan Peppercorn, Grapeseed Oil, Curry Leaf, Clove
Here we have one of the best renditions of cabbage I've had. I just loved the multi-pronged spicing of the dish, and how that played against the bitter, crunchy veggie.

Basmati Rice
Murgh Makhani
Murgh Makhani [$20.00] | Tandoori Chicken, Spiced Tomato, White Pepper, Jaggery, served with Basmati Rice
The Chef's version of butter chicken displayed more depth and complexity than most, and I was enamored with how its spicing was paired with hints of smoke and a bit of an astringent edge. As for the rice, it was just what I wanted texturally, and boasted a touch of sweetness to boot that made sense with the bird.

Daru Dessert Menu
A small selection of desserts is offered, along with accompanying after-dinner beverages. Click for a larger version.

Amaro Nonino
To pair with dessert, I requested a pour of Amaro Nonino [$12], a delicately bittersweet digestif loaded with charming notes of citrus and spice.

Gulab Jamun
Gulab Jamun [$10.00] | Pistachio, Warm with Cardamom Gelato
The evening concluded with easily the best gulaab jamun I've tasted. The dough balls were great texturally, and matched up beautifully with the cardamom-spiced ice cream and the dessert's generally nutty, nearly honeyed flavors.

I walked out of Daru duly impressed. The food was both classic yet creative, familiar yet novel, and I loved how smartly and seamlessly Chef Sundas was able to weave his Nepalese influence into the cooking. Cocktails, meanwhile, were commendable as well, and I had no qualms about the service, either. I can definitely see why so many people recommended this place to me, and in fact, this was probably the strongest Indian meal I've ever had.


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