414 Bourke St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Dinner Tue-Sat from 5pm; Sunday curry and rice buffet from 5pm, $30 (cash only); thali lunch Tue-Fri 11.30am-2pm (cash only)|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9331 5399|
Hooray for Bollywood! From the Indian movies screening on the wall to the music and good smells that fill the air, Don't Tell Aunty is a multi-sensory feast of sub-continental colour and movement.
The warehouse space that was Colin Fassnidge's 4Fourteen now blushes punk pink, with a glitzy spotlit bar, potted palms and vivid blue velvet banquettes. It's both proudly Indian and proudly disruptive of classical Indian restaurant cliches.
The force behind all this festivity is Jessi Singh, who has helped open a string of "unauthentic Indian" eateries from Melbourne to Santa Barbara and New York, and co-owner Amar Singh, of Melbourne's Horn Please.
The cute name comes from being naughty with the rules. Don't tell Aunty, but Singh makes butter chicken without butter; sends out "naan pizza" with cheese and pickled red chilli and adds sea urchin (when available) to his biryani.
Do tell Aunty, however, to start with either balls of happiness ($12), six perfect spheres of semolina crunchiness holding dabs of tangy chutneys; or the pappadum, chutney, and naan platter ($25) with its eight zippy colourful pools of chutneys, from cumin yoghurt to the best, a velvety mint and coriander.
Next up, yoghurt kebab of two crumbed, crisp croquettes filled with lush, hung and spiced curd-like yoghurt ($18), on a vivid vermilion sauce of beetroot and ginger.
Then rosy-red, Colonel Tso's cauliflower ($20), a riff on an Americanised Chinese chicken dish that turns cauliflower florets into something that tastes remarkably like battered and fried sweet-and-sour pork.
I'm told there's no butter, ghee or oil used in the cooking and that sauces are often thickened with fenugreek, which might account for the group mentality – all rich, lush and thick – of the main courses.
Coconut fish curry ($28) was off-puttingly sweet with coconut milk, with soft, pappy chunks of snapper. Even a dhal ($18) of slow-simmered black lentils with ginger and garlic was rich and heavy, and tandoor Aussie lamb chops ($32) had a mushy coating of yoghurt, ginger, mustard and spices.
I find out later the head tandoor chef has gone home to Nepal to get married (best wishes to you both), which could account for a lack of excitement in that department until he returns.
Punjabi gosht curry of goat ($30) is terrific, nicely balanced in its cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bayleaf, cumin, coriander and mustard spicing, the meat at ease in its sauce.
The wine list is amazing – as vibrant and contemporary as the menu and filled with personality wines (Ochota Barrels, Denton, Bindi, Simha, Bobinet) chosen by award-winning Indian-American sommelier turned winemaker Rajat Parr.
Small allocations from small-scale winemakers mean several are unavailable but a workmanlike 2016 Dolcetto Santa Anna ($65) is bright, herbaceous and juicy enough for the low levels of spice.
Desserts include a super-creamy kulfi ($8) nostalgically flavoured with the tea and biscuits of Singh's childhood. It arrives sheathed in its long, slender, metal cone mould, to be rubbed in your hands until warm enough to slide out.
You can have fun here, with a menu that fizzes and pops with new-from-old ideas.
But this food only has one volume – loud. Does everything have to be dialled up to 11, as in Spinal Tap? Don't tell Aunty, but sometimes there's more rhythm and nuance when everything isn't fighting to be heard. Or maybe, do tell Aunty.
Vegetarian: Lots, from streetwise snacks such as chaat to palak paneer, kadhi and dhal, salads and Indian breads.
Drinks: Bollywood-inspired cocktails ($18), plus a hit-list of 50 natural-leaning wines from boutique makers, several with Indian connections.
Go-to dish: Colonel Tso's cauliflower, $20.
Pro tip: Feel free to go and get your own beer from the self-serve fridge. Just don't tell aunty.