The chicken tikka masala at Daru
The chicken tikka masala at Daru. All photos courtesy of Daru

Dish By DishWashington D.C.

How Daru Devises Its ‘Indian-ish’ Tastes, in 10 Dishes and Drinks


Daru, the restaurant and cocktail bar just south of H Street Corridor, will serve you exceptional versions of classical Indian dishes.

Ish. The flavors and ingredients at Daru diverge from those at many other Indian restaurants, by design. Yes, that’s blue cheese on chicken kebabs. And burrata on dal, and eggplant paneer bhurji smothered in a tart rhubarb chutney.

“We use the word Indian-ish in the sense that the inspiration for the food and the drinks are taken from all over the place,” says partner Dante Datta. “But they’re rooted in traditional techniques, flavors, and ingredients that define South Asian cooking.”

This playground of combinations comes from the brains of Datta and chef Suresh Sundas, who met in 2012 while working at D.C.’s legendary upscale Indian restaurant Rasika. As Sundas tended to the tandoor and Datta devised new cocktails for the bar, a friendship began to blossom. “We would be in the kitchen, tasting each other’s food,” Datta recalls. In 2017, the duo began dreaming up a restaurant concept of their own: a cocktail-focused spot with cozy neighborhood vibes paired with an attention to detail that evoked fine dining.

These dreams crystallized as Daru, which is named after the Hindi word for country liquor. It was originally slated to open in April 2020, but as with many things that year, the duo decided to push it until 2021. That extra time provided them a chance to reflect on their concept — and to devise a more expressive take on an Indian restaurant, one that drew on both Suresh’s training in Indian cuisine, and Dante’s gift for beverages.

Today, the restaurant has become a destination in equal parts for its cocktails and its dishes. There are plenty of fan favorites— bison momo, black daal burrata, and lasooni lamb chops, to name a few — but many dishes and ingredients rotate with the seasons. According to Sundas, inspiration for new flavor combinations can come from anywhere: spontaneous trips to the farmer’s market, experiments in the kitchen, and nostalgia from his hometown Morang in eastern Nepal.

On the drinks front, Datta has an ever-evolving list of seven cocktails that rotate with the seasons, with an eye toward pairing with the kitchen’s heavily spiced food. The same mindset goes for the restaurant’s curation of naturally minded wines largely under $70 (try the jacquère from Domaine Dupraz in the Savoie) and its cabinet of Indian-style beers, sodas, and seasonal lassis. This is Indian-ish cooking and drinking at its finest — tamarind, blue cheese, and all.

Here, Sundas and Datta take us through 10 of Daru’s dishes and cocktails, in their own words.

Daru bison momo
Bison momo.
Daru chicken tikka tacos
Chicken tikka tacos.

1. Bison Momo

Suresh: We have to start with the momo, which is a traditional Nepali dish. I grew up eating momos in Nepal, and I love this dish. And in Nepal, we have buffalo, like water buffalo. I was just imagining that; it’s so much juicier, with the gamey flavor of the buffalo meat. And in this case, I chose the bison and it’s worked very well.

We flavor it with Sichuan tomato chutney. Sichuan peppercorn is a traditional Nepali ingredient, and we are using a Sichuan peppercorn that is not [readily] available here. We call that version timur, and it’s grown in Nepal; I directly get it from Nepal. It has a different flavor than regular Sichuan peppercorn, and I’m trying to use the most authentic ingredients possible.

2. Chicken Tikka Taco

Suresh: We have a tandoori chicken taco. The chicken is cooked in a tandoor, and we slice it up with onions, tomatoes, and achiote paste; it’s like a tandoori chicken, and I think it’s a good bar snack. We use our own Indian paratha bread. It’s mixed with mint, parsley, oregano, turmeric, and salt; it’s kind of our own taco bread.

We also use tandoor chicken in our Reshmi kebab. I thought about how I could change it a bit from the classic, and I just began eating blue cheese on the kebab — blue cheese, cashew paste, some hung yogurt, and green cardamom — and pairing that with a sour cherry chutney. It’s a bit different from other chutneys at every Indian restaurant, but why not try making sweet-sour chutneys?

Dante: For the chicken tikka taco, it’s really interesting because he’s using an achiote paste which is used in a lot of Latin cooking, but with the North Indian paratha, it’s a really nice combination of different cultures coming in.

Daru striped bass paturi
Daru striped bass paturi

3. Striped Bass Paturi

Suresh: Paturi means leaf in Bengali, so this is striped sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked. That influence is from Bengali cooking — wrapping fish in the banana leaf. We are grilling them here, with the flavor of lime juice, lime zest, and makrut lime leaf. It’s marinated in chile flakes, hung yogurt, and turmeric, and lots of it, too.

The cooking technique is Indian. Wrapping it in the banana leaf is, too. It’s an Indian dish, but I changed this to be my own. Rather than just putting lemon, juice, salt, and pepper on it, we added more flavor to it — the kaffir lime juice, zest, and leaves.

Daru lasooni lamb chops
Lasooni lamb chops.
Daru chicken tikka masala
Chicken tikka masala.

4. Lasooni Lamb Chops

Suresh: Our best seller. They look very classic but we use a fermented black garlic paste, cashew paste, Thai green chile paste, and hung yogurt again. I wanted to get that lamb sauce garlic flavor, but we’re also trying to do something different. We sell them by the piece, and they are four and a half ounces per.


5. Chicken Tikka Masala

Suresh: Our chicken tikka masala has some kind of inner creamy and smokey flavor to it. I use a lot of ginger and Thai green chile. We always have ginger, chile, butter, and caramelized onion. I think these are all the second steps to make chicken tikka masala more delicious. And of course, we use dried fenugreek leaf. Some other restaurants don’t use that much ginger chile. They use jalapeño instead. When I used to work in other Indian restaurants, they said, ‘Oh, I can’t find the Thai green chile, because you have to travel and it’s kind of rare.’ I don’t compromise to get what I need.

Daru black daal burrata
The daal burrata.
Daru paneer bhurji
The paneer bhurji.

6. Daal Burrata

Suresh: Daal Bukhara is a very popular dish, and I was thinking about how we could make it different. I was going to Whole Foods [for research] and was trying all the cheeses there. I tried the burrata; I had never seen burrata in my life before coming to America. I see in other cuisines that they use this ingredient in salad. [At Daru,] it’s sitting in the middle of the daal and looks cool. I was dreaming about putting it into the middle, adding pickle oil and chiles. So I’m glad I got to try that one.


7. Baigan Paneer Bhurji

Suresh: We have a classic dish called egg bhurji. I tested it with paneer, so I thought, why not make paneer bhurji instead of egg bhurji? So I put it on the menu with eggplant and paneer. We finish it with applesauce chutney. Maybe next month we’ll have a rhubarb chutney because it’s coming in the season.

The Haldi Buck cocktail at Daru
The Haldi Buck.
The Bandit Queen cocktail at Daru
The Bandit Queen.

8. Haldi Buck

Dante: Haldi means turmeric. And for this drink, we make something in-house called turmeric citrate. What this is, is taking citric acid, water, and turmeric and making a souring ingredient for this cocktail, but turmeric flavored. The turmeric is steeped into the citrate like tea; instead of lime juice, we use this citrate. Then, we cut up the golden beets, roast them in the oven, and then infuse them as is into a Mexican indigenous spirit called sotol. We also use a little of bit of mezcal in the drink to give it a bit more smokiness and depth. So yes, we are using both mezcal and sotol. We take all those things and then we’ll top it with ginger beer. So, kind of like a Moscow Mule, but done with these flavors as well.


9. Bandit Queen

Dante: One drink that has been really popular is the Bandit Queen. It’s sort of a take on a Negroni variation that started in New York by some bartenders at a bar called Attaboy, which is very well known. The original drink they had was a take on a Negroni but made with rum and chocolate bitters, and their version was called Right Hand.

Now we’re making a version of that, but we’re taking rum from Bangalore and we’re infusing it with garam masala. So we let that sit overnight, then we mix in Bonal, which is a vino amaro. (Think a bit like vermouth but a little more bitter.) And then, in place of Campari, we’re taking another bitter agent. It’s an amaro, but it’s made in Baltimore. It’s a Sichuan peppercorn amaro called Baltamaro, made by the Baltimore Spirits Company. Then we add a dash of mole bitters to that. We also add a tamarind cordial, a little dash to give it some fruit.

Daru partner Dante Datta
Dante Datta.
Daru chef Suresh Sundas
Suresh Sundas.

10. Chakra Phool

Dante: We put out a take on a Sazerac. Chakra Phool means flower wheel, and it’s another way to refer to star anise, which is like a flower but in wheel form.

Traditionally, a Sazerac is rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, and absinthe. Instead of the absinthe, we add roasted star anise and a star anise tincture. And then for a base spirit, we use an Indian cashew-apple brandy, Cognac, and an American apple brandy.

Jess Eng is a food and culture writer. She contributes to the Washington Post, The New York Times, TASTE, Eater, and more. She also founded and hosts the fermentation-focused podcast Ferments Live. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.