Modern Indian cuisine at SF’s ROOH still inspires after all this time | by Virginia Miller | April 2022

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We stan an evergreen gourmet classic

ROOH appetizer bites. (Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Miller)

Eince my first Modern Indian experience in London at the majestic Cinnamon Club shortly after its debut in 2001, I have been addicted to expressions inspired by the cuisine of one of the most complex food countries in the world: India. But let’s be clear: curry houses, dosa destinations, traditional Indian breads, regional cuisine and family shops of all kinds are equally appealing. I’m crazy about Indian food from all regions and styles and just wish I could spend months digging deep across the country.

I have a passion for British Indian and upmarket modern Indian where innovative chefs reinterpret this vast cuisine in often surprising ways. Over 20 years visiting London, I’ve loved everything from the classic and elegant Gymkhana to the delicious Kricket in Soho. At home in San Francisco, masters like chef Srijith Gopinathan have made Taj Campton Place one of India’s most exciting foodie (and only 2 Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in the US) His more casual yet still refined modern Indian cuisine brother, Ettan of Palo Alto, has just been named Chef Sri a Best Chef: California semi-final nomination at this year’s James Beard Awards.

With the pandemic shutdown of local treasures like Aug 5, there are fewer modern SF Indian options. Thank goodness for ROOH. With a name meaning “soul” or “spirit,” ROOH has been a “progressive Indian” SoMa dining destination since 2017. Open flame, the tandoori-focused ROOH Palo Alto location is its totally different and worthy sister, having the misfortune to open in 2020, but luckily it’s going strong.

ROOH Dungeness Crab Bonda. (Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Miller)

Both were opened by Vikram and Anu Bhambri of Good Times Restaurants, the group went on to launch ROOH in New Delhi, New York, Chicago, Palo Alto and most recently ROOH Columbus, Ohio. But San Francisco was the first ROOH and chef Sujan Sarkar has been handling all the locations ever since, having worked in kitchens from India to London. Along with staples like one of the best Delhi-style butter chicken curries, Sujan has a visionary palate for her home country’s cuisine, whether it’s frozen yogurt chaat adorned with tamarind, mint, coriander, dried mango powder and chilli chutney, or tandoori spices monkfish rhubarb masala alleppey coconut curry lentils.

His kind brother, chef Pujan Sarkar, runs SF’s kitchen, where I regularly ordered pandemic takeout/delivery. Returning to dinner on a Tuesday, ROOH was packed with Indian families and dates, as well as after-work crowds. To catch up on the latest from Sarkar, we sampled a range of signature dishes and cocktails. The tall, cramped space — vivid in the velvet-blue, yellow, and orange-red booths — was buzzing, though the music still gave me a bit of the 90s, Buddha Bar lounge vibe.

Pujan kicked us off with bites, including a mango-raspberry-masala game over the aforementioned yogurt chaat. A cup of lush leek and calabash (gourd) shorba (soup) gains umami depth from winter truffles, all washed down with a warm masala bun.

ROOH’s winter truffle kulcha. (Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Miller)

Unique kulchas (sweet sourdough North Indian flatbread) have been a mainstay at ROOH for years. Tonight, winter truffles again appeared shaved over warm kulcha filled with creamy green peas and goat cheese, while a chili cheese kulcha gains savory, peppery layers of shishitos and manchego cheese.

Sweet and savory often play on the menu. Take a generous and vegetable-laden hara bhara kebab. Here, the traditional Indian spiced potato cake is filled with edamame and peas, with a tart twist of blueberry. The dish is green and leafy, swimming in a broth of snow peas and nira oil (Japanese garlic chives). Although comforting, it tastes like spring.

There are many variations of bonda (South Indian fried potato flour dumplings). Here is one of Chef Pujan’s most playful and visually appealing dishes. Atop the Dungeness Crab Bonda are two small, soft-shelled baby crabs resting in a Japanese-style mayonnaise/kewpie, with a wild seaweed salad crowning them like a crown of greenery. On alternate sides of the plate, a pool of liquid nitrogen between them, their little claws are directed and ready to “guard” the pool. Such tasteful whimsy is what I would love to see even more at ROOH, turning dinner into a playful delight.

ROOH huckleberry kebab edamame potato cake. (Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Miller)

Long-time staples remain — jackfruit masala tacos and butter chicken — alongside ever-changing unusual seasonal offerings like paneer dolmas. These are dolma-like lettuce wraps around fluffy Indian paneer cheese, accented with peperoncini in padron pepper salan, a Pakistani Indian onion “sauce”. Or, millet khichdi, a “porridge” typically made of rice and lentils, here, millet topped with maitake mushrooms, mischievously fried in the Indian brand Frito-Lay Kurkure, seasoned with mango achar (marinated green mango “relish”) laced with mustard seeds, chillies and turmeric.

In the early days of ROOH, I found the cocktails intriguing on paper but less in taste and balance. Then Chetan Gangan — who also oversees the Palo Alto bar — has been sharpening and elevating the drinks during the pandemic. On my recent return, a few glasses were a little too sweet, looking for that balance. But others worked, especially the Crawford Kolada-worthy video, which best captures that playful spirit that emanates from ROOH.

It’s a sophisticated sip of Scotch blended with monkey shoulder with a reduction of pineapple, thyme and Sauvignon Blanc. Notably, it arrives molecular style with a giant sphere atop the gold cocktail glass, waiting to be popped, dissipating into smoke, revealing the smoked pineapple elixir in the glass.

Crawford Kolada. (Photo: Courtesy of Virginia Miller)

Chef Sujan’s celeriac pie in salted jaggery and pineapple caramel — reminiscent of pineapple upside-down cake — has long been a ROOH highlight. It’s also the most inspired use of celery root I’ve seen since Noma in Copenhagen. However, Kyoto’s new baby carrot halwa is up for another star dessert. I have long preferred savory desserts and this one follows the fine line of savory-sweet with a saffron and gold leaf carrot, draped alongside cardamom mawa (milk solids) mousse and halwa, with a crunchy contrast of pistachios. It is rewarding with texture and layers.

While dozens of Pakistani Tandoor-loin (Tenderloin) curry houses or South Indian dosa and uttapam stops (like Udupi Palace) have long been affordable treasures, we also have need for high-end Indians, and the loss of a few over the past two years has been disappointing. There’s plenty of that ilk in the Bay Area — including a one-of-a-kind female chef, vegetarian destination SF Besharam. Luckily, here in SF we also have ROOH, Chef Sarkar and his team, who bring us interesting regional and seasonal Indian dishes with a global twist from brothers who know how to bring it.

// 333 Brannan Street, www.roohsf.com

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