37-41 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm, 5pm-10pm; Sat-Sun 5pm-10pm.|
|Features||Bar, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Degustation|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9242 0814|
Karma Chameleon is not the soundtrack you expect to accompany a thali tray. My Sharona, the creepy teen-stalking classic, isn't a likely match for tandoori prawns either. But Daughter in Law, the latest venture from Jessi Singh, is here to defy both Indian restaurant stereotypes, and normal restaurant stereotypes. If Love Shack had dropped with my lassi, I might have descended into full High School Disco PTSD.
Those who know Singh's original Victorian restaurants – Babu Ji, Horn Please and Dhaba at the Mill, all of which he and wife Jennifer sold before heading to the United States in 2014 – won't be surprised by the vivid explosion of colour and noise here. The former calling cards – help-yourself craft beer fridges, huge coloured murals of Indian family figureheads and bright projections dancing across the walls – already shook up Melbourne, and Manhattan, back to 2011. Daughter in Law goes further.
The tables are Millennial pink, the velvet booths Hawaiian blue. Singh says while his other restaurants tip a hat to respected family elders, as per tradition, Daughter in Law is all about the next gen, who recognise their roots but demand independence. It is, as the kids say, all very woke.
This is the philosophy driving Singh's far-reaching menu, which is broad enough to make the degustation wise, but always thoughtful. Snacks encompass traditional golgappa, aka pani puri (or here "balls of happiness") – crunchy, hollow semolina puffs filled with mint, tamarind and tart yoghurt liquor that detonate on bite. Welcome to India.
Less mainstream with just as much zip, is Indochinese gobi manchurian, a trashy treasure of crisp cauli florets stained radioactive red by vinegary chilli sauce.
There is a lot going on. Everywhere. On the sound system. In your glass (my Dry July mango lassi is as thick as a panna cotta but I have it on good authority the beetroot tequila cocktail is an earthy, dirty star), and should you order an oyster, it will come sluiced in mango pickle "butter" with a volcanic salt-crusted lime for good measure. Yee haa. Vitally, though, the barrage of stimuli is intentional and has enough chaotic momentum to make you get on board.
Singh's philosophy is that if they go hard on every part of the package, and miss with one thing, diners will hopefully like something else. I like but don't love the crumbed, hung yoghurt, infused with green cardamom and fresh ginger and awash in a bright beetroot sea. But the enormous, lightly spiced tandoori prawns are a rare example where the heads and tails are rendered crunchy and crackling-like instead of acrid and charred.
As far as covering bases go, Daughter in Law does it better than most. Occasionally it's an obvious cross-cultural party: tandoor-cooked steak with curry-slathered chips comes to mind. But tweaks to traditional curries are less about cultural fusion than dealing with modern diets.
The butter chicken is bold and rich, yet free of butter, ghee and oil; it's a combination instead of tomatoes, garlic, ginger made like a ketchup and thickened out with milk for an oil slick-free yet still intense alternative to a hugely popular dish.
Are you surfing the FODMAP wave? Easy. There's a special dhal for that, as well as another version which, far from being filler is the restaurant's most labour-intensive dish, taking five days of soaking and simmering on the tandoor each night to become a dark, luxurious silk.
One of the simplest but most compelling curries bathes prawns in a gloss of coconut cream stained with turmeric, fresh curry leaves and mild kashmiri chillies.
Here's the good news: this winner, that dhal, some raita and a half dozen of Daughter in Law's other curries from a pork neck vindaloo to sweet, mustard-spiced pumpkin come in fun-sized pots framing crisp naan and rice as one, just one, dish in your tasting menu.
More conflicting: this whole kit and kaboodle and a kulfi (cardamom and pistachio-infused condensed milk, frozen into a luxe, creamy pop) costs a pittance at $55. Individual curries are $18-$25. Why so cheap? Yes it's a disco. Sure, lentils are thrifty. But five days labour at award wages to render it silk is not.
If the daughters of India are fighting for their worth, surely here's a restaurant that can kick the "cheap curry" trend. I'll pay.
Vegetarian Every diet from FODMAP to vegan and dairy-free can party.
Drinks Natural-leaning small producer wines from Australia and the States. Spiced cocktails.
Cost $55 for tasting menu; lunch thalis for $15; curries $18-25, naan pizzas.
Pro Tip: Get a late-night naan pizza at the bar.
Go-to Dish: Seafood coconut curry ($20).