San Francisco is home to some notable Indian restaurants, but lately, the entire Indian food scene has stepped up its game, better reflecting the vibrant and varied cuisine of the world’s second most populous country. Menus now feature more local ingredients, dishes made using modern as well as traditional techniques and a greater emphasis on both the diverse styles of food and regions of India.
Deepa Thomas, a local entrepreneur and author of a new cookbook, “Deepa’s Secrets,” has noticed the change in Indian restaurants and a greater interest in Indian food. She sees it as part of a “borderless cuisine” trend. “We are all influenced by what’s going on all around us,” she says. She mentions influences such as technology, quality ingredients and an interest in the connection between food and health. Combine that with the Bay Area’s large concentration of Indian technology workers and adventurous local diners, and the result is more than the standard Indian buffet. Here are the local Indian restaurants leading the way.
Arguably, the top Indian restaurant in the Bay Area is Campton Place, which has two Michelin stars. But chef Srijith Gopinathan is never one to rest on his laurels. His exquisite tasting menus often show touches of whimsy in dishes like the Spice Pot, a vegetarian dish in a clay pot traditionally used for plants that’s served with a magical flourish so that a puff of fog appears.
“Spice Pot basically tells you how much San Francisco means to me and how much I love this little beautiful place,” Gopinathan says. “It’s a pretty emotional and a super personal dish to me.”
Equally delightful is a more recent creation, Picnic in Golden Gate Park. In a box with several compartments are a variety of bite-sized treats. “I live close to Golden Gate Park, and my family hangs out a lot there. Many times we sit down under a tree and enjoy nature with some homemade snacks,” Gopinathan says. “I thought why not give it a restaurant treatment and share it with our diners?”
August 1 Five
One new restaurant making a splash with great reviews is August 1 Five. Located just blocks from the premier symphony, ballet, opera and jazz venues, it has a sensual and luxurious feel, with velvet booths, a lattice entryway and bold peacock imagery and colors. Owner Hetal Shah looked to create the kind of restaurant she and her family would want to dine in, with a commitment to organic and sustainable ingredients and options for more communal dining. The menu is comprised mostly of small plates, and it’s all intended to be shared, although there is a chef’s special four-course course menu available. Chef Manish Tyagi has had an illustrious career in India, where he was awarded a prize for championing regional cuisine. His focus continues to be regional dishes inspired by street food, home cooking and more traditional restaurant fare, but updated with local ingredients and often a lighter California sensibility.
The lamb chops are a signature dish, and one he learned from his father. They’re tender and delicately spiced and coated in a thick dusting of California pistachios. Another favorite dish is gol gappa, crisp puri puffs filled with potato, cucumber, cilantro stems, red onion and a touch of jalapeno. They arrive at the table with carafes of mint cilantro punch and mango tamarind water. Pour the liquid into the puffs, and the result is a crunchy and juicy bite.
Rooh is pushing Indian food to new heights in SoMa. Like August 1 Five, it's the complete package, with an impressive wine and cocktail list, dramatic interior and modern cuisine from a star chef from India. Chef Sujan Sarkar uses modern techniques such as sous vide, liquid nitrogen and dehydrators to present traditional flavors in new ways. One of his signature dishes is the Jhalmuri Bar. It looks like a granola bar, but it’s savory rather than sweet. He tops the popped grain bar with avocado and potatoes, tamarind and mint and serves it with buttermilk sorbet. “If you close your eyes, it tastes 100 percent Indian,” Sarkar says.
Another menu staple is tuna bhel. Bhel puri is a well-known street food, and Sarkar explains that his version is done with tuna and grilled mango, black rice, tamarind and green apple. “It’s like tuna poke but a different kind of flavor profile.” It’s instantly recognizable as Indian and yet fresh and new thanks to the addition of tuna.
Not all modern Indian restaurants are fine dining. The cuisine of Preeti Mistry, the chef and owner of Navi Kitchen in Emeryville, defies categorization. “I’m not a huge fan of the word fusion. I’m not a fused person. I’m me,” she says. “I’m from London and went to culinary school there, visited India and Trinidad, grew up in Ohio and have been cooking in the Bay Area for over 10 years—it all influences my food.” She first struck out on her own with a pop-up that reflected the way she’d always cooked at home. Dishes at Navi include familiar favorites like macaroni and cheese and a breakfast sandwich offered on weekends, all with an Indian twist.
The runaway hit of the restaurant is its Indian pizzas. They come with toppings such as kheema—lamb and beef tomato sauce, Lacinato kale and red onion. The most popular pizza has proven to be Leelu Potato, topped with pistachio herb pesto, potato, sweet peppers and cherry tomatoes. Mistry is a pizza lover and wanted to make pies with Indian flavors but “not with just any old Indian curry on top.”
Back in San Francisco, Mumbai native Rupam Bhagat opened Dum Indian Soul Food on 24th Street in the Mission District. Having run a successful food truck and worked in hotels, Bhagat approaches dishes creatively, with a keen sense of what will work for both Indian and non-Indian guests. His brunch menu is a perfect example. Dishes like green eggs, pancake and eggs benedict all sound familiar but are inventive and modern Indian versions.
The green eggs features poached eggs blanketed in the pureed spinach that you would find in palak paneer and is garnished with mini croquettes made from vindaloo. The pancake is really a version of a traditional uttapam, savory not sweet, made from lentil and rice flours, with fresh tomato, onion and cilantro and served with coconut chutney and garlic hot sauce. It’s indeed soulful food with familiar Indian flavors showcased in new ways.
While traditionally much of the Indian food in the Bay Area was from the North of India, Dosa originally focused solely on the food of South India. Although the menu still offers Southern specialties like dosas and uttapams, most recently the restaurant has been featuring deeper dives into even more regions and has added a Bengali menu. Though there are still more than a dozen Indian chefs in his kitchens, the restaurant’s new chef, who is of Indian heritage and grew up in New York, is bringing a fresh eye to the menu, sourcing seasonal California ingredients and serving them with traditional Indian flavors.
One addition to the menu is smoked arctic char and peach curry. “The dish is based on a mango curry we’ve been offering for years, but the new chef swapped out the local peaches for mango,” owner Anjan Mitra explains. “The fish is smoked over apple wood. We use the open fire techniques used in India, but here we use local wood.”
A Creative Approach to Giving Back
Ranjan Dey, chef and owner of New Delhi Restaurant, takes charitable giving to the next level with Compassionate Chefs, a non-profit organization. “In 2007, I met with my staff, and we all wanted to make a difference, across the street and across the ocean,” he says. His organization raises funds for the Tenderloin After School Program and programs affiliated with the Ghandi Ashram in India. The restaurant covers expenses and sponsors events, and several times a year he transforms the restaurant into the “Compassionate Chefs Cafe” and allows guests to pay what they like, with all money going to charity.