Some trends can feel like tectonic plates shifting, only to be revealed, in hindsight, as momentary blips. The spate of Shaanxi or Xi’an restaurants that opened around 2013 felt like a new frontier for Chinese cuisine in San Francisco, but they largely fizzled out. In the last six months, the city has seen the debut of three spacious, contemporary Indian restaurants: August 1 Five, Babu Ji, and now Rooh. Taken together, they feel like the ground is moving underfoot. We’ll have a better perspective a little down the road, but for the time being, it’s an impressive trio. As befitting its location near the San Francisco Opera, August 1 Five is the most classic, and the hipper Babu Ji — an NYC import whose Lower Manhattan antecedent has since shuttered — fits well on Valencia Street.
Rooh, the newest, is the priciest and the most daring. It, too, fits its environs hand-in-glove, being around the block from Saison, San Francisco’s spendiest restaurant. And last month the real-estate site Zumper declared that South Beach was tied with Pacific Heights as the neighborhood with the highest median rent for a one-bedroom. At Rooh, the median price of the eight large plates is $29.88, a hair beneath a psychological tipping point.
But it’s worth it. If you go for dinner, start with the liquid liver foie gras plate ($18), a dish of chicken liver masala fry, pickled shallots, and taftan flatbread that is more whipped than “liquid,” and hot in both senses of the word. Having calibrated your palate, move on to the tuna bhel (with avocado, tamarind gel, puffed black rice, baby radish, and togarashi, $16) for a truer idea of what chef Sujan Sarkar wants to do. It’s not so much an “elevation” of Indian food — always a nebulous concept, and one tethered to price — as an expansion outward. In the case of the bhel, a ceviche-like street food, it combines the traits of excellent poke and the freshness of a high-end guacamole. Even after mixing everything together, the individual components remain distinct, with the crispy rice shooting for the moon.
That was a tough act to follow, and the mild burrata with heirloom tomato kut, cilantro-and-walnut chutney, and more taftan ($14) couldn’t quite cut it. This is hardly the best season for tomatoes, so I don’t want to drop the guillotine blade on this one, but sometimes, burrata is a better supporting player than star, and this needed a stronger center to hold it together. (I suspect this might be a different story in six months.) The only genuine flop was a $30 lamb shank that looked as caveman-ish as the bone that gets tossed in the air during the opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Covered in a humdrum gravy, it was a monochrome plate of dirt-brown that had a few chewy sections and none of the visual pizzazz of everything that came before. Paired with a non-naan in the form of mint chili lachha paratha, it barely flickered in spite of the mint-lamb connection. Sea bass ($32) made with agave and Madras curry, savoy cabbage foogath, and sunchoke salan, was much better, and perfectly cooked if a little on the sweet side.
Lunch is different and much more shareable. Although it was basically a slab of fish next to a side salad, the Achari wild salmon ($15) was the sea bass’ equal in terms of its execution; you’ll never again look twice at farmed grab-and-go fish in clamshell packaging. Even better was the non-vegetarian tasting menu ($25), which arranges five bowls of butter chicken, vegetable curry, dal, saffron rice, and an outstanding avocado raita around a smaller bowl of chutney. It comes with papad — i.e. papadums — but you’re going to want an order of naan to join the Clean Plate Club.
Undoubtedly, the very best thing I ordered at Rooh was the Chicken 65 ($14), a plate of deep-fried, chili-slathered morsels piled with just enough vegetables to feel elegant and a few dabs of yogurt to cool it all down. It’s not unheard of in San Francisco, but I can’t fathom why something this delicious isn’t more widespread.
Some things at Rooh are not merely well-thought-out, but unique in their presentation. Baklava ($10) goes from being a flake fest that leaves you with sticky fingers to a squad of fork-able bites dressed in pistachios and mango. Or take the cocktail menu, a wheel of six categories with two drinks in each. Admittedly, it’s not the most legible decryption device to scrutinize in low lighting, but it’ll lead you to Pink City (Plantation rum, guava, Indian chili, and Rooh masala), which has echoes of a watermelon cosmo but comes with a cucumber and red pepper garnish that yanks it back from mid-aughts oblivion. The Banaras Sour, a gesture to the holy city of Varanasi, combines gin, basil, cucumber, and Chartreuse, making it about as refreshing as possible.
Rooh’s vibe is upscale but joyous. It’s an oddly shaped room, full of brightly patterned throw pillows and alcove booths, with an ultramarine bar and a set of tables along one wall that might feel like Siberia to a scenester or else a secluded spot for date night. (There’s no self-service beer fridge, like you find at Babu Ji.) While “progressive Indian food” sounds like a negotiation with — if not capitulation to — a palate that’s presumed to be white or otherwise non-Indian, the unmistakably Indian base notes and singular flair that characterize a meal at Rooh are, in the end, a winning combo. Let’s hope this trend endures.
Rooh, 333 Brannan St., 415-525-4174 or roohsf.com