It’s been a busy winter and spring for contemporary Indian food in the Bay Area, with a trifecta of restaurants each leaving a strong impression that fortifies itself when all three are taken together. The first and arguably the most classic, August 1 Five, opened near City Hall, followed by the hipper, looser Babu Ji — an import from Melbourne, Australia by way of New York City, although those locations have since closed. The most expensive and, culinarily speaking, the most inventive, is Rooh in SoMa. In the aggregate, with dishes like Unauthentic Butter Chicken (Babu Ji), lamb chops with cashew paste and cardamom (August 1 Five), and monkfish tail a la plancha (Rooh), the trio will remedy the unfair cultural sting that hovers around the multifoliate cuisines of India.
But there’s a quiet monarch in their midst, too: Union Square’s Campton Place. Having earned a Michelin star every year since 2011, executive chef Srijith Gopinathan’s kitchen was upgraded to two in 2015. This in and of itself is worth noting. But the bias toward French cuisine — and, more recently, New American — that characterizes the elite ratings system means that Indian restaurants with Michelin stars are a relative rarity in the United States. Gopinathan’s nine-course, $155 “Spice Route” tasting menu is — in his words — Cal-Indian, which may account for some of that.
Being inside a hotel — the Taj Campton Place — breakfast and lunch are served, too, but what’s likelier to hold the attention of the gourmands francais are fantastic amuses-bouches like a bowl of cucumber and chickpeas served with a powerfully effervescent mint-and-meyer-lemon soda served in a milk bottle, or a (very spicy) crispy cuttlefish with spice essence. Naan buns on a lava rock were undoubtedly the best, the seared butter and lentil moose feeling like a hot pretzel in the world’s fanciest stadium.
That cuttlefish spice was still in my mouth when the first proper course arrived, adding dimension to the spring salad with “raita snow” that followed. This is tweezer food: Ribbons of cucumber sit atop load-bearing bean crackers known as khakhras. In spite of the powdery yogurt fluff, it was a lovely, summery dish — almost a fruit salad. One overthought detail: a bizarrely shaped flat spoon made it almost impossible to reach the bottom.
Foie gras — an optional, $30 supplement — arrived next, and in spite of a 2008 Sauterne to bounce off of, it was quite the humdrum luxury. The watery texture was more like brain than liver, and served on an undersalted Indian flatbread that felt like a puffy egg onion bagel, it lacked a dominant note.
White wines ruled, and the Poet’s Leaf Riesling that came with the lobster was beautifully restrained. Dressed with kale and black rice, it could have been overkill, but it wasn’t, owing to the variety of textures and the peppery curry. The most squarely traditional Indian dish, fried cauliflower with “turmeric whey,” was next in succession. That whey was a foam, and being pale yellow from the turmeric, it looked even more like cat vomit than foams already do, which is why we should live in a post-foam world. But between the crispy cauliflower and the thick curd rice, it was otherwise quite appetizing.
Halibut came after, and it was probably the apex of the meal, owing to the crust’s conversation-abating spice level (great, although I didn’t see it coming) and warm mango nectar. It’s a tiny portion, but the presentation was indicative of Chef Sri’s penchant for structure, the fish cantilevered over its base of fruit. Liberty duck — the only duck, as far as high-end San Francisco kitchens are concerned — followed, with canoes of peas plus rice bookended by morel mushrooms. That fairly standard pairing got a dose of South India in the form of a tandoori carrot relish, although the overall flavor profile kept both feet planted in North America.
Dessert appeared in the form of a lemongrass royale, ice cream made bracing by a ring of blood-orange granita and thin-sliced kumquats, and then tandoori purple yam with particles of a douglas fir a sprig, crumbles of pecan, and more of the raita snow that had come with the salad. It’s always nice when the sexiest bit makes a reprise.
Judged by its food alone, Campton Place deserves its acclaim, and any of the newcomers will have to work mighty hard to challenge its primacy. The service, too, is graceful throughout. But in spite of the gaudy, Dale Chihuly-esque flower suspended over the middle of the room, the ambience is so stiff as to be mortuary-like. Every window is deliberately blocked with a potted plant, as if to shield diners’ eyes from the unsightly alley that gives the restaurant its name. Compared with the bright colors, blown-up photography, and general air of conviviality at any one of its modern-Indian peers, a dinner at Campton Place feels like a vicarage tea party. It might as well have a grandfather clock reprogrammed to tick every other second to make time feel like it’s passing more slowly.
Sometimes, when eating in an underpopulated restaurant, I enjoy the quiet and read a New Yorker in peace, figuring the place hasn’t found its sea legs yet and the hordes will descend before long (or else I’m just there at an off-hour). But on a recent Wednesday, Campton was deserted through almost the entirety of dinner service, with no more than one other table occupied. My dinner companion and I sat in a booth, as did the others — so apart from the hushed conversation, we were eating in an empty chamber for more than two hours.
Badly dated, Campton Place could use a little life breathed into it. (Pending approval, a remodel is in the works, possibly as soon as the end of this year. Campton will also add a pre-theater menu.) Hopefully the crop of new rivals gains it new attention and spurs the hotel into taking action quickly. A little competition could be the best thing in the end.
Inside the Taj Campton Place hotel
340 Stockton St.
(415) 955-5555 or tajcamptonplace.com
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version.Food and Wine