It’s been almost a month since chef Ajay Walia first started making headlines not for the flavor-rich South Indian cuisine that helped his restaurant Peninsula Rasa earn Michelin recognition and a nod in as the best Indian restaurant in the Bay Area of the old San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer – but for his willingness to turn away all the accolades by completely unplugging the restaurant.
“Our focus shifted from doing what we were doing to maintaining what we won,” Walia told the the Chronicle in May. So he decided to temporarily close Rasa and take several weeks to turn it into a second location for his San Carlos staple, 20-year-old Saffron. Walia says he hopes hitting the reset button will help his team establish a more sustainable rhythm. “I can’t say it wasn’t difficult,” Walia said of the decision. “Change is always difficult for everyone, but it’s the only constant. The pandemic has forced everyone to do things we never thought we should do and we were no exception.
When the restaurant reopens on Tuesday June 7, Rasa will have transformed into Safran, although Walia says he was conscious of not wanting to alienate peninsular diners who loved Rasa’s South Indian menu. So in the future, they can still order some of Rasa’s most recognizable dishes, including the restaurant’s Bombay Sliders, with spiced potato fritters stacked on pav bread with tangy tamarind chutney and a riff of the south Indian on bread pudding called burnt cardamom. But there will also be new North Indian-style dishes, including General Tso’s Cauliflower, an Indo-Chinese small plate with cauliflower wrapped in tomato curry sauce, and an expanded selection of entrees. , including lamb curry, makhani daal, and lasooni saag. Walia says he also pushed to make the new menu more accessible to those with dietary restrictions; for example, the restaurant now serves a vegan and gluten-free dosa made from millet.
Walia says the menu allows him to refocus the restaurant on the simple goal it set itself two decades ago: to serve delicious Indian cuisine prepared with excellent ingredients and to provide diners with excellent service, adding that never imagined that the restaurant would get a Michelin star. “For me, it wasn’t about goals or awards,” Walia says. “When we opened 20 years ago, it was like, when we wanted to go out and party, we had to go to a non-Indian restaurant. We wanted to change that. Looking at the Bay Area food scene today today, he feels he has succeeded in this mission.
The space will also look different for diners familiar with Rasa’s jewel-toned color palette. With the aesthetic makeover, Walia aimed to bring more light into the space, adding lighter colors and more plants. Overall, they actually reduced the total number of seats in the restaurant to two levels, Walia says, because they wanted the room to feel more open, less crowded. Most of the staff also stayed on through the transition, he says, noting that it was the team’s commitment to the restaurant’s refined vision that made the changes possible. “We are the same people,” says Walia. “We are of the same sensibility. If they loved us, I’m sure they will love us now.
Saffron (209 Park Road, Burlingame) reopens Tuesday, June 7 and will serve dinner from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.