Sydney doesn't want for great Thai food or regional Chinese specialties like dan dan noodles, but when it comes to South Asian cuisine, there's not much to write home about. Jessi Singh – he of Melbourne's Horn Please and Babu Ji – is about to change all that with the opening of Don't Tell Aunty, a contemporary Indian diner, in Surry Hills.
We have to wonder, what aren't we telling aunty? "Back home, Indian women are the ones who decorate houses, run the kitchens, design the menus" says Singh, chef and owner at Don't Tell Aunty. "Men are not part of the cooking scene. The name is a cheeky way to honour the unsung heroes of Indian cuisine and home: mums, aunties, grandmas."
Singh himself has re-designed the old 4Fourteen space, adding magenta walls and blue velvet banquettes to the 85-seat dining room and a marble counter to the open kitchen. We won't tell aunty that he's put together a playlist of '70s Bollywood retro and disco to add to the playful atmosphere. And we won't tell her about the rule-breaking, "un-authentic" menu full of bright flavours and dishes driven by what's in season. Think a naan pizza complete with fontina cheese, local fish coated in a ginger-honey sauce before being charred in the tandoor and yoghurt "kebabs" that are in fact closer in appearance to croquettes.
It might sound a little experimental but rest assured, you're in safe hands. Singh opened his first restaurant, Dhaba, in Kyneton, an hour from Melbourne, which was followed by the successful Horn Please and Babu Ji before the chef went to the USA to open Babu Ji outposts in New York and California.
The chef's childhood, spent in Punjab, India, has played a large role in the inspiration for his menu at Don't Tell Aunty. "The food was simple, you ate what you grew and we looked forward to the seasons for the different produce it would bring," he says.
Among the street-style snacks on the menu, you'll find papadi chaat: papapdi meaning "chips" and chaat "licking the fingers". The chef describes it as a play on nachos. A chunky mix of grape, cucumber, tomato, potato, chickpea and mango sits on potato chips, with a cumin-infused yogurt, date and tamarind chutney and green salsa of mint, coriander, ginger, chilli and lime rounding things out.
Traditionalists will find comfort in the dhal, a four-day affair where black lentils are left on the tandoor to steam, soften and meld with flavours of ginger and garlic. While the menu offers a choice of eight curries and dhals, the smart move could be to opt for the chef's tasting menu, which includes a finale of a curry tasting platter: a thali that holds rice, naan, a colourful mix of curries – butter chicken or chana masala, say – and an array of salsas. Up for something more casual? Every day a $10 buffet-style canteen lunch will be set up on the marble counter.
Desserts stick with the fun theme and include rose, cardamom and fennel powder fairy floss (Singh's favourite) and a play on Indian afternoon tea that involves chai ice-cream and crumbled Parle-G biscuits – India's equivalent of the Milk Arrowroot. And the drinks? The bar is focusing on gin cocktails (of course) along with mezcal, while the wine list is a mix of global bottles put together by winemaker and sommelier, Rajat Parr. In a casual touch, diners can help themselves from the beer fridge.
"I have always dreamed of being part of the Sydney dining scene – it's a beautiful city with great food and a great growing climate," says Singh. Something tells us Sydney is going to be mighty glad the chef's made that dream a reality.
Don't Tell Aunty, 414 Bourke St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9331 5399, donttellaunty.com.au. Lunch Tue-Sat 11am-2.30pm; dinner 5pm-10pm.