Ask Hetal Shah, which is harder — creating advertising technology at Google or running a restaurant — and she doesn’t hesitate to answer:
Operating a restaurant. By far.
Shah, who left her job at Google a year ago, and her husband, who still works in tech, had experience opening restaurants, having established Red Hot Chili Pepper in San Carlos in 2010, the casual take on Indian-inflected Chinese food.
But their next restaurant venture was exceedingly more ambitious, August 1 Five, which opened a little over a year ago in San Francisco’s Civic Center.
The name of the splashy, upscale modern Indian restaurant commemorates the date that India won its independence from British rule.
Although Shah and her husband loved the mom-and-pop Indian restaurants in the United States, they missed the more contemporary fare found at high-end hotels in India. So when she and her husband moved to San Francisco from New York, they decided to do something to fill that void.
Their goal, she told me a few weeks ago when I was invited in as a guest of August 1 Five, was to showcase Indian food through a California lens. That means de-emphasizing traditional curries, and incorporating California bounty such as avocado and asparagus that aren’t normally used in Indian dishes. They hired Chef Manish Tyagi, formerly of Washington D.C.’s Rasika West End and the Bay Area’s Amber India restaurants, who brings imaginative contemporary flair to dishes.
The uber chic dining room is done up in deep royal blue walls punctuated by a dramatic mural of Maharaja of Patiala. The most coveted seats are the plush teal velvet booths with dark lattice screens that frame the entryway.
Even though it’s a large restaurant at about 4,000 square feet, it can fill up quickly on a weekend, because it’s a popular destination to dine before the symphony, ballet or opera. When we arrived a little early for our 5 p.m. reservation, there were already about 10 people in line waiting for the doors to open.
The restaurant is known for its cocktails. On Shah’s recommendation, I started with the popular J.R.D. Tata Sour ($13), a blend of vodka, lemon, violette, and sour mango foam. It’s fruity, tangy, and a bit creamy — sort of like a boozy mango version of an Orange Julius.
Later, I segued to the whimsically named Glamping cocktail ($13), only because its toasted marshmallow garnish had me intrigued. A server delivers the glass to the table, holding graham cracker bourbon with a tiny piece of dry ice. It spews a bit of fog, even through its topper of a torn piece of chocolate cocoa nib cookie and a mini marshmallow that almost looks like a piece of popcorn. The server then takes a lighter to the marshmallow to toast it in front of you.
“It’s a mad scientist crossed with an Old Fashioned crossed with S’mores,” he states before recommending you sip it slowly between bites of the cookie. It’s a most apt description. It’s a fun sip, though with its sweet bent, you might want to save it to enjoy after dinner.
We started with the dish that the restaurant has become famous for: Gol Guppa ($10). I’ve had these one-bite semolina shells at other places before, but I don’t think I’ve ever had ones so crisp. The puri are filled with potato, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeno. Two carafes come alongside, one holding mint-cilantro water and the other, mango-tamarind water. You pour one or the other, or a little of both, into each puri and throw it back in one full swoop for a gushing rush of bold flavors.
Palak chaat ($10) is another popular dish. It’s this incredibly light and crisp dish of fried baby spinach leaves, chickpeas, tamarind and yogurt. It’s as if potato chips somehow became a salad.
Shah described the shami kebab ($15) as an Indian version of taquitos. And it really is. Tender lamb is rolled inside thin flatbread, then fried. They’re garnished with pickled onions, black sesame and cilantro chutney. You can pick them up with your fingers, too.
The mini bread sampler ($9) is a must-order. One each of cheese, potato & sage, and chickpea (missi) naan arrive on a wooden board. You can add a sampler of house chutneys ($3). This evening they encompassed a thick sweet-and-sour eggplant chutney, and a smokey roasted pepper one. Just tear a piece off and dip away at will.
Pepper chicken ($15) arrives on paratha flatbread. The chicken is heady with tellicherry pepper. It’s a more one-note dish than the others before it, but tasty, nevertheless.
The seabass ($34) is spectacular — moist, flaky, and sprinkled with hazelnut dust for a pop of nuttiness. It is finished with a wasabi cream, made with the real rhizome, which provides a subtle nasal-y floralness without sinus-blowing heat. Juicy balls of melon add unexpected quenching fruity sweetness.
The goat biryani ($25) arrives in a covered black vessel. The basmati rice dish is redolent of fennel seeds, saffron, and frizzled shallots. The chunks of goat meat are very tender, with a faint gaminess almost like lamb. It’s a comforting dish you can’t wait to tuck into.
To end the night, there is Ghevar ($8). Our server explained that it’s typically a cake. But here, it’s a crisp tart shell along the lines of phyllo that’s filled with a fluffy cardamom whipped cream before being decorated with pistachios and silver leaf. Matcha is strewn over the bottom of the plate for color and a lilt of astringent grassiness.
From the moment you step inside August 1 Five, you feel instantly glam. When you leave, you do so with all your senses thoroughly heightened.
More Places to Enjoy Indian Cuisine: Dosa
And: Saffron Bistro
And: Vik’s Chaat