Along with poke, chickpea jerky, and “street food (again),” The New York Times declared turmeric to be among the big food trends of 2016. Another, more regrettable trend in the hipsterized food world was the continuation of stepping on other cultures’ toes. Witness some context-free assertions that this or that soup — which may in fact be hundreds or even thousands of years old — is “the new ramen,” because enough bloggers discovered it in a short enough time frame that their judgments acquired enough critical mass to become facts of a sort.
After eating a few times at August 1 Five, Chef Manish Tyagi’s modern Indian restaurant on Van Ness Avenue, I wondered under what conditions turmeric — which, not for nothing, I distinctly recall being hailed a so-called superfood around 2005 — could come across as authentic or trend-chasing. It’s not for me to provide a dispositive answer on that point, of course. And August 1 Five has some trendy details, like a wall of plants in one corner and the same GMO-free locavorism you find everywhere. But the use of turmeric in, say, a boozy passion fruit lassie with dark rum, strikes me as pretty clever.
It’s a great cocktail, prepared with house-made kefir so that it lacks any of the milkshake-thick quality of its virgin, yogurt-filled cousin (which you can also order). Nor is it even especially nectar-y from the passion fruit, either, and the dark rum and Tellicherry pepper make magic together. August 1 Five has other great cocktails, too, many of them pan-British-Empire. The PK Negroni swaps gin for dark rum, for example, and adds coconut Campari. I liked the deliberate overkill in the Moneypenny G&T (Bombay gin, yellow Chartreuse, pineapple juice, lemon, Combier Liqueur de Rose, and tonic) as well, although the garnish of dried rosebuds feels like potpourri if you get one in your mouth by mistake.
With a couple of duds, the food matched the cocktails. Starting with the basic elements, a naan trio ($9) was a perfectly good starter, but the pappadum ($8) is superior. A nest of radishes and peanuts on that most lordly of crackers, it contains crispy bits of lentil as well, and sits on a seismogram of chutney. You might have to hyperextend your jaw to eat the four of them in one bite each, as instructed, but try.
The two chaats, or savory snacks, are better still — and totally unalike. The dahi chaat ($8) consists of four elegantly arranged spoons stacked with mint, tamarind chutney, yogurt, and crunchy coils of chickpea vermicelli. (Smell ya later, chickpea jerky!) If textures were categorized like the five basic tastes, this spoonful would cover everything at once, with a wave of umami tying it all together. But the palak chaat ($8) is even more impressive, a fried salad — if you will — of baby spinach, garbanzos, tamarind, and yogurt. It sounds a little like something you could get a bag of at Trader Joe’s, but it’s really well-executed: no excess salt or oil.
I’ve written again and again that flights of things are automatically awesome, but I met a puzzler in the gol guppa flight ($8), a street food also known as pani puri. In lieu of a chutney or other thick sauce, August 1 Five provides five flavored waters — tamarind, mint-cilantro, mango, fruit punch, and grape — to fill your six wheat-and-potato shells. For starters, the ratios are off. Like the conundrum of why-do-hot-dogs-come-in-packs-of-eight-while-buns-are-12-to-a-bag, it seemed impossible to use even a quarter of the total volume of liquid. Feeling like we were wasting food, we re-ordered the shells — or pani — and still had plenty left over. But more importantly, the flavored waters felt like spicy agua frescas that all carried the same generic heat after the first sip. And they were slightly chilled. Serving them at room temperature, if not a little warm, would have made a big difference, because a big gulp of cold liquid with warm food is not for me. (I know: Why order Round 2 if I didn’t like them, then? Catholic guilt, I guess. Or stubbornness.)
In spite of its beautiful presentation on a piece of slate, I wasn’t blown away by the ordinary pepper chicken ($15). But the fermented strips of rice-and-chickpea-batter known as dhokla ($8) were as satisfying as really good cornbread. Bison keema ($14), a pot of dark stew with a buttery fried egg and an oversized strip of bacon on it, would be better for brunch than dinner, but — like the sisig and grits at Buffalo Theory — it’d probably cure whatever ailed you. A bowl of saffron-heavy chicken biryani ($19), admittedly difficult to eat with one’s hands even with a cucumber raita to bind the rice, was like an elevated version of the chicken you’d find at your favorite Indian buffet. And for the sheer joy of meat that parts ways with its bone, get the lamb shank ($29), which appears to have marinated in tomato and onion since the Mughal Empire.
Named for the date of India’s independence, Aug. 15, 1947, there is a formality to August 1 Five’s atmosphere that feels like it’s fighting off solemnity. The dining areas and bar are smartly screened off from one another — partitioned, you might say. The walls are deep, peacock blue, the color of the sky a few minutes before astronomical twilight, plus the hustling staff wear matching, blue-and-white checkered shirts.
And the bejeweled, sleepy-eyed royal whose portrait presides over the main room is Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, a polo fanatic and thrower of lavish parties who allegedly “over-served” an opposing Irish polo team at dinner so that they would lose their match the next day. (An alternate story says he was late to his own soirees, and since no one was permitted to leave prior to his arrival, everybody got super-wasted.) Either way, the bigger-than-a-shot measurement of liquor known in India as a “Patiala Peg” owes its existence to his lust for life.
That same name turns up as another cocktail at August 1 Five, made with wide-ranging ingredients like Gran Classico, sarasaparilla root liqueur, and scotch. Any discussion about trends in dining should acknowledge the portrait of the maharajah, a regal bon vivant who would have likely waved it all away.
August 1 Five, 524 Van Ness Ave. 415-771-5900 or august1five.com