Valencia Street is a synonym for hip — except when it isn’t. While Mid-Market’s spate of closures hogs most of the attention, there have been a few prominent crashes-and-burns along the Mission’s most ride-hail-clogged thoroughfare. So in a reverse of Mission Chinese Food’s move from S.F. to New York’s Chinatown, Jennifer and Jessi Singh’s near-fatally hip, Lower-East-Side-by-way-of-Melbourne Indian restaurant Babu Ji has landed here. Its premise is pretty simple: making Indian food sexy.
Although I would have preferred the sauces and chutneys to be toned down here and there, it succeeds. And the chef’s tasting menu ($62, with optional
$24 beer and $34 wine pairings) is the way to go about it. From the start, you notice the care and attention paid to harmonious, seductive textures that characterize this kitchen.
Presented as an amuse bouche — i.e., one per person — Babu Ji’s gol gappa had the right amount of body and didn’t gush open in one’s mouth like juice bombs. Next, a patty with a paneer-esque filling called “hung yogurt,” plus an edible orchid and a truly gorgeous beetroot sauce, was heavenly. I’m a rigid ideologue in terms of keeping sea critters’ heads intact, and beyond the satisfaction of picking the meat out of the carapace, the texture of the four tandoori prawns was nearly creamy. (In what turned out to be a theme, it was doubly sauced, with a tamarind chutney that was particularly good.)
Even more heavily slathered were the chunks of “Colonel Tso’s” cauliflower, this time in an agrodolce chili sauce that wouldn’t have been out of place at my favorite Korean hole-in-the-wall, and flecked with sesame seeds. The texture was a marvel, too: It turned out that the cauliflower was boiled, broiled, and then deep-fried. And the strange name isn’t just an allusion to General Tso, but an homage to immigrants — specifically, to a restaurant Jessi Singh encountered in a small Australian town near Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Whatever its origins, it’s the most original cruciferous vegetable preparation I’ve had in ages.
As with the prawns, the whole trout that followed was as enjoyable to separate from its skeleton as it was easy. Two pieces of lamb, in yogurt and chutney, rounded out the small plates. Nothing about them was creative, but nothing about them could be improved. Although beautifully presented and generous overall, the thali — bowls of butter chicken, beef korma, seafood curry, dal, kadhi, raita, and basmati rice, centered around naan and a pappadum — was the tasting menu’s wobbly leg.
First, by that point, I can’t conceive of any man, woman, or child not struggling to put a dent in a thali set this big. And I love garlic naan and could eat it indefinitely, and the char on that baby was spot-on, but some of the bowls could have used more meat and protein — and to get really nitpicky, something about the various sauces felt a little too consistent, as if they’d all been homogenized with the same amount of the same thickening agent. But the korma’s cardamom-heavy spice mix was beguiling, the shrimp played off its seafood curry’s sweetness, and the outlier dal was rich and thick.
I later got a full portion of that “inauthentic” butter chicken ($26), and with a lot more meat to evaluate it, it was thoroughly delicious, its inauthenticity a result of using fenugreek instead of butter. (That sounds odd, but through this or that chemical reaction, it works.) Like enchiladas la bandera, the batata vada ($16) was a plate of potato croquettes that came with a red-white-and-green trio of chutneys and yogurt. It’s a bit over-sauced, in terms of the ratios in front of you and in crowding out the pineapple and mustard flavors in the croquettes themselves, but the croquettes are lighter than they appear and carry some lusty heat.
While the cocktails are good — I’m especially keen on the “Ne, Ne, Ne…,” which is basically a vanilla-centric Manhattan — the real hipster catnip is the self-service beer fridge, all the contents of which are $8. Me, I sort of stared into it like a visitor to Yellowstone gawking at two elk mating until somebody steered me toward Sixpoint Brewery’s Jammer Gose — which turned out to be much more salty than sour, so I’m probably going to give that Brooklyn export a hard pass in the future and stick with something easier, like Fort Point KSA or Scrimshaw. (You can get Kingfisher if you want.)
Babu Ji’s most obvious point of comparison would be August 1 Five, another contemporary Indian restaurant with a peacock motif that opened a couple months ago on Van Ness Avenue.
Like Deep Impact and Armageddon or Marguerite and Florence Foster Jenkins, the timing seems unfortunate and destined to split people’s attention, but Babu Ji is the better of the two. Its gol gappa alone are superior, but there’s a determination to delight that just isn’t present at August 1 Five to the same degree.
Considering the atmosphere and the location, Babu Ji has potentially serious drawbacks, though. From the kitsch Bollywood soundtrack to the “Avenue B”-emblazoned baseball caps the staff wears, the vibe is so hip, so aggressively East Village, that it risks turning people off. Relatively high prices and a casual approach to tradition can also get under folks’ skin. (Service is not brisk, either — although I do want to commend the staff for swapping out dirty plates after almost every course.) The interior is cool, but the lounge next to the bar is a dead zone: At no point during any of my visits did even one person sit down there. More ominously, none of the previous four restaurants at this address — Conduit, Another Monkey, Plin, and Nostra Spaghetteria — managed to hang on for more than three years. But none of those places put this spin on cauliflower, or served luscious bowls of butter-less butter chicken with effortlessly fluffy naan. I honestly can’t think of a better fit for this space than Babu Ji.
Babu Ji, 280 Valencia St. 415-525-4857 or babujisf.com