Even for passersby who have no intention of going in, the entrance creates the desired effect: “It brings attention to the corner,” says Dante Datta, who opened Daru with Suresh Sundas in early August. Their work histories should induce lip-smacking. Datta, 38, the drinks maven whose parents are from West Bengal, comes to the project from neighborly Elle, the Columbia Room — the groundbreaking bar created by Derek Brown — and the acclaimed Rasika West End, where he met Sundas, also 38, nine years ago. Sundas, a native of Nepal, was the tandoor chef at the contemporary Indian restaurant, responsible for breads, barbecue dishes and more.
Had there been no pandemic, Daru would be a watering hole serving snacks. (The owners say they were inspired in part by Bar Goto in New York, a Japanese izakaya, or tavern, on the Lower East Side.) The name of the new establishment derives from a type of moonshine, desi daru, popular in rural India and sprung from palm sugar. The bar, ringed by a dozen seats, tends to fill first. The shake-shake-shake of drinks is music to the ears of ringside participants.
Smooth off the edges of a rough day with Hari Daiquiri. Crafted from rum, curdled and clarified kefir and a puree of cilantro and mint, it’s the color of life — green — and inspired by mint chutney. Datta credits bar manager Tom Martinez, formerly of Columbia Room, for the liquid elegance, which like all the Indian-inspired cocktails here costs $14.
The global crisis forced the business partners to put more focus on food. Good call. People seated at safely distanced tables bests people standing inches from one another at a bar. Besides, a larger-than-intended menu throws more well-deserved attention on the chef. Dish after dish shows Sundas to be as attentive to presentation as flavor. He even reveals a sense of humor with what the owners refer to as an “Indian-ish” operation. “Local ingredients and Indian techniques,” says Sundas.
Cue the … tacos? You read that right. Sundas swaps in an herby, whole-wheat flatbread for tortillas and tops it with chunks of jackfruit. Like tofu, jackfruit acts like a sponge and absorbs the flavor of whatever it connects with, in this case, a blend of chile paste, caramelized onion and lemon juice for tang. The texture of the tropical fruit mimics that of meat. In fact, were you to leave off the sour cream base, the taco would be vegan. Gracing the plate is shredded red cabbage tossed with red wine vinegar and what sounds like a kitchen sink: oregano, green chile, honey, saffron. My mouth can’t get enough of the jousting.
Another distinctive introduction is a chicken kebab made rich with blue cheese, cream cheese and sour cream and cooked on an open flame. To look at the kebab is to see toasted marshmallows. The perfect foil to the creamy richness is a vivid sour cherry sauce, warm with bay leaf and cinnamon, pooled under the chicken.
Sundas clearly learned a lot at Rasika West End, where even the more straightforward-sounding dishes sparkle. Lamb chops are marinated overnight in garlic, Greek yogurt and green chiles — elements that insert themselves into every nook and cranny of the meat — and acquire a shower of crushed pink peppercorns after they leave the grill. The green comet tail on the plate? You’ll want to swipe a bite of oh-so-soft lamb through the chef’s turmeric-sparked take on chimichurri. Fluffy biryani benefits from warm spices, a treasure of seasonal mushrooms and dried apricots. Set off with a pretty viola, a side dish of smoked mashed eggplant fairly pulses with cilantro, ginger and sweet onions.
The single most alluring entree is a big blue plate of moist sea bass, yellow from turmeric and swaddled in a banana leaf, escorted by tomato chutney and a bowl of kichidi, one of the few nods to the chef’s homeland. The puree of kale, jasmine rice and mung lentils is something Sundas remembers his mother making for him when he was sick as a child. At Daru, the comfort is enhanced with ghee, cumin seeds and more. TLC lives on.
Different servers, including Datta, check in like the mindful hosts they’ve learned to be at such feel-good Washington restaurants as Bar Charley and the Dabney as well as the aforementioned Columbia Room and Elle (where the graphic artist behind Daru’s distinctive door, T.J. Buttner, works as a server). Sundas sightings are rare. As at his former place of employment, the kitchen is below ground.
The bar is the heart of the otherwise simple dining room, whose walls of white paint or red brick and knotty wood floors keep eyes focused on the food and drink. Picture windows pull in streams of light and catch diners on the small patio, merrymaking in a silent movie. Speaking of sound, the return of so many people to so many restaurants has some readers imploring me to resurrect sound checks. For the record, Daru averages 82 decibels, “extremely loud,” at prime time.
Conversation can mean leaning in to hear tablemates. You might not always catch what they’re saying, but you know by a nudge of, say, a Kesari old-fashioned that they want you to sample scotch as you likely haven’t — gold with saffron liqueur, biting with ginger liqueur and softly nutty. The last flavor is the result of roasting cashews, turning them into butter, pouring scotch over the spread and letting the spirit absorb the nuttiness. A day later, the liquid is strained. The next time you question the cost of drinks, think of the unseen labor that goes into some of the best.
The entrance catches your eye. The food, drink and hospitality — even early in its game — win your devotion. Like it says above the door, the guest is god at Daru.
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Daru 1451 Maryland Ave. NE. 202-388-1848. darudc.com. Open for takeout and inside and outside dining 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $16 to $26. Accessibility: No barriers at the front door; ADA-compliant restrooms.