7 August 2023

Daana to close less than a year after being named Australia’s best Indian restaurant

| Travis Radford
Sunita and Sanjay Kumar.

Sunita and Sanjay Kumar’s Indian restaurant has won far too many awards to even list in a single article – yet it will close its doors this September. Photo: Travis Radford.

Daana will hold its last service this September, the same month the cult favourite Indian restaurant first opened its doors in residential Curtin seven years ago.

The announcement comes less than a year after Daana won gold in the Indian restaurant category at the 2022 Hostplus Restaurant and Catering Awards.

Restaurateurs and chefs Sanjay and Sunita Kumar say while the decision is due to their landlord’s plans to redevelop the site, they see it as an opportunity to take a pause.

“This place has its charm. We always wanted to have a venue that would feel like home and I don’t know if it will replicate itself in another place,” Sunita says.

“But also as a restaurant brand, we’ve done so many different things, and I think it was time for us to take a pause and see if it needs new energy altogether.”

The pair haven’t ruled out reopening elsewhere, but plan to focus for now on their three other Canberra hospitality ventures and continuing their fundraising through Karma Kitchen.

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Daana will always however be the first jewel in the duo’s Canberra hospitality crown. But some may not know the restaurant that started it all began an entire year before Daana as it’s known today opened its doors.

Back in September 2015, Sanjay and Sunita started serving Indian street food from a shipping container at the now-defunct Westside Acton Park on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.

“We brought the best of street food from all four corners of the country and … that was, I think, the first taste of real Indian street food for a lot of Canberrans,” Sunita remembers.

It was an instant hit and it wasn’t long before Sanjay and Sunita began hunting for a permanent home for Daana. They reveal one of the reasons why they chose Curtin in the video below.

After moving their restaurant to Curtin in September 2016, the couple thought about continuing the concept of authentic Indian street food.

“But it didn’t quite gel with the place,” Sunita explains.

Armed with the conviction that there was a lot more to Indian cuisine than what was on offer in Canberra, the pair took the road less travelled. A road that took them to south and regional India.

“What happens if it doesn’t work?” Sanjay remembers asking himself. “Can we just go to the tried and tested formula like everyone else, follow that easy path and do what everyone else is doing?

“But if we do that, then there’s no going back. It’ll be very hard to take that [harder] path. So, no, we will stay and believe in ourselves and what we’re doing and things will fall in place.”

Call it courage or foolery, but it worked. The next year, Daana was named the ACT’s Best New Restaurant and by 2018, the ACT’s Best Indian Restaurant (a title they hold to this day).

But rather than doing as the idiom says and ‘quitting while they were ahead’, it wasn’t long until Sanjay remembers them thinking, “We need to do something completely different”.

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Inspiration came in the unlikeliest of places. The couple were on a tour of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve to see a platypus when they had a vision for their next big move.

“The ranger was walking with us and he picked up some leaves and he said, ‘This a native you can eat’,” Sanjay remembers. “That’s where the idea came from.”

Sanjay and Sunita spent the next 18 months experimenting with blending native Australian and southern Indian spices and by March 2020, were ready to launch their new ‘Confluence’ menu. Then came COVID. When lockdown ended, the restaurateurs had a choice to make: play it safe and abandon the launch, or push ahead.

“We said, ‘We’ve taken risks all along, so why not?” Sunita says.

The awards and customers kept flowing. But as Sunita explains, Daana is bigger than just its food.

“It’s the experience, it’s the cultural exchange … it’s the stories behind the food,” she says.

One of Sunita’s favourite stories isn’t one she tells to guests though, but one she’s lived. Years ago, Daana held a wazwan (Kashmiri banquet) and one guest was a young Kashmiri woman.

“[Afterwards], she sent us such a beautiful, heartfelt message, which talked about how she was reminded of her grandfather making these wazwans for the family,” Sunita remembers.

“There’s no greater appreciation than being told the food we cook with a lot of love reminds someone of their grandfather or grandmother. I think it’s bigger than any other award.”

Daana’s last service will be held on Saturday 16 September. To make a booking or find out more about Sanjay and Sunita’s other work, please visit the Daana website.

Original Article published by Travis Radford on Riotact.

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