Modern Indian Cuisine In San Francisco

Progressive Far East restaurants storm the Bay Area

August 15 is the national holiday commemorating India's independence from British rule. But the date, adopted as the moniker for August 1 Five, the new modern Indian restaurant in San Francisco that nabbed three and a half stars for serving the likes of pork belly paratha, could also be a metaphor for a different sort of uprising, one that's rippling across the city. "We are liberating traditional Indian cuisine from the way it has always been perceived," ex-Googler Hetal Shah, who opened the restaurant in November, explains.  

Shah is not alone. Culinary revolutions, like political ones, don't form out of a vacuum, and the same zeitgeist that led to August 1 Five has ushered in a new wave of high-profile Indian restaurants, including Babu Ji, a spin-off of the (just-closed) Lower East Side boîte, and the three-starred ROOH, the first U.S. venture from the Good Times Restaurants group in India.

At ROOH, you'll find classically trained Indian cooks wielding immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen and planchas, as they turn out dishes like tandoori sea bass with lemon foam for the restaurant's degustation-style tasting menu. Across town at Babu Ji, diners are chowing down on naan pizza and helping themselves to Kingfishers from a communal beer fridge. But despite their differences, all are on a mission to show American diners there's more to Indian cuisine than cheap buffets dishing heavy kormas, curries and overly spicy vindaloos, while a sitar player strums in the back.

The Bay Area has no shortage of Indian restaurants and also has one of the largest expatriate communities in the U.S. to frequent them. But up until recently—with a few notable exceptions like Dosa, which hawks South Indian chaat, and the Spice Trail-inspired tasting menus at Campton Place—San Francisco's offerings haven't really veered off script. So why now?

"Why not?" ROOH co-owner Vikram Bhambri retorts. "We've seen other ethnic cuisines like Mexican and Chinese go through this revolution, so why not Indian?"

These newcomers aren't simply throwing down a white tablecloth and charging double digits for the same old tikka masala. By plumbing the breadth of regional Indian fare, marrying it with the best Northern California ingredients and modern gastronomic techniques, and presenting it in snazzy digs, they're truly pushing the boundaries.

Contrary to popular belief, there's no such thing as "authentic" Indian food. India is a vast and diverse country, made of 29 states, and boasts as many regional specialties as it does dialects. So as these restaurant owners are quick to point out, whatever your mom and grandmother cooked when you were growing up is authentic to you.

Sujan Sarkar, executive chef at ROOH, puts a finer point on it. "Our goal is to keep the original flavors intact, but play with technique or add a more progressive ingredient to push the envelope, not to mess with the dish."

A fine example is the arancini at August 1 Five. Chef Manish Tyagi, an alumnus of Rasika in Washington, D.C., reimagines khichadi, a humble rice and lentil porridge, as elegant risotto balls. Enriched with goat cheese, battered in panko and served with pickled chutney, yogurt and strips of papadam, the dish has flavors that are recognizable to anyone who's ever tried the Ayurvedic detox food, yet the stylish presentation wouldn't be out of place at a chic restaurant of the Instagram age. And the elegant gol gappa "flight"—crispy orbs of wheat puffs filled with spiced potatoes accompanied by carafes of flavored waters—are a far cry from the pani puri you'd find at a roadside stall in Old Delhi but are still spot on flavor-wise.

Sophisticated beverage programs that go well beyond Taj Mahal tall boys—including motherland-inspired craft cocktails and food-friendly wine lists—are yet another example of how these restaurateurs are blazing a new trail. Babu Ji hired Rajat Parr, formerly the wine director at Mina Group, to craft its wine program, and August 1 Five tapped Austin Ferrari, the wine director of Hillside Supper Club, to spearhead its list.

ROOH, too, has invested in high-end glassware and tapped seasoned sommelier Mickey Clevenger, whose résumé includes Fleur de Lys, to oversee its service and wine programs. "We're trying to break the myth that all Indian food is spicy and will burn your mouth if you drink it with anything but beer," Bhambri explains.

But ROOH's crown jewel is its cutting-edge cocktail list, which Bhambri designed around the six rasas (tastes) of ancient Ayurveda tradition. Presented as a color wheel (similar to a wine flavor wheel), the drink menu is broken down into categories of taste: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter. So here, an old-fashioned is anything but; found in the bitter section, ROOH's version features Four Roses whiskey embellished with a ghee-and-mustard wash, aromatic bitters and honey.

Across town, the other bar programs follow suit, busting out the sort of fancy stemware and artisanal spirits usually reserved for trendy drinking dens. Standout cocktails include the Turmeric Lassi, with dark rum, passion fruit and kefir, at August 1 Five, and the Masad Arvo Chai, a riff on a Manhattan, with rye, Cocchi di Torino and burnt orange, at Babu Ji.

"Occasionally, we still have some people coming in and asking where the saag paneer is," Shah admits. But judging from the packed dining rooms in San Francisco and plans for a Manhattan outpost of ROOH under way, it seems that progressive Indian dining is ready for its close-up.

We'll raise a whiskey-spiked chai punch to that.

Meesha Halm is a San Francisco-based writer, producer and cookbook author. Follow her adventures in sous vide and other dining escapades at @meeshahalm.