Rooh in Palo Alto Is Smoking Hot
When husband and wife, Vikram Bhambri, a Dell vice president, and Anu Bhambri, a former Microsoft senior software engineer, moved to San Jose from Seattle, they scoured the Peninsula for nine months, searching for a location to open their first Bay Area restaurant.
But the perfect locale actually turned out to be in San Francisco, which is where the couple, who also has restaurants in India, opened the modern-Indian Rooh in 2016. That was followed in quick succession by Rooh locations in Chicago and Columbus.
Now, finally in 2020, the Bhambri’s original dream has come true with the opening of Rooh Palo Alto — in a big way.
It is the first of their restaurants to focus on live-fire cooking. In fact, it boasts a 13-foot-long custom grill, smoker and rotisserie. The Bhambris believe it’s the first apparatus in an Indian restaurant in the world. It can be admired behind glass from the dining room, as chickens rotate over the fire and whole pineapples hang overhead, turning soft and caramelized.
Executive Chef Sujan Sarkar, formerly of Rooh San Francisco, oversees the kitchen in Palo Alto. He is skillful at marrying Indian spices with ingredients not normally used in Indian cuisine, such as provolone cheese, feta, tahini, and polenta.
I had the opportunity to try his dishes when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant on its opening night last Friday. It’s a glamorous restaurant done up with red wallpaper, red crystal chandeliers imported from India, and a dramatic mural of an Indian goddess on the rear wall.
The cocktail menu resembles a color wheel except labeled with “salty, sour, pungent, bitter, sweet, and astringent” properties. The specialty drinks ($15 each) are influenced by Ayurvedic holistic medicine. And they are eye-candy, to boot.
Just consider the Jugaad, which every table is sure to order. It’s a persimmon-colored drink of mezcal and pickled raspberry that’s put through a centrifuge to clarify it. What makes this cocktail impossible to ignore, though, is that it arrives in the glass with a large, fragile bubble covering the top. Poke it, and it will vanish, leaving behind a trail of smoke. Talk about Instagram-ready. But it’s not all looks. The taste is fruity yet also very smoky, almost meaty and savory.
A perfect bite to start with is the dahi puri ($9). The crisp, thin semolina shells are filled here with yogurt mousse and raspberry chaat masala. Eat it in one or two bites, and it’s sure to wake up the palate with its explosive hit of fruitiness, piquancy, and earthy spices like turmeric.
Much of the menu is indeed cooked on that unique grill. It’s hard to resist the pineapple after seeing it cooking over the grill. Tandoori pineapple ($8) doesn’t disappoint. Neat chunks come in a bowl with feta and fresh mint, allowing the smoky, juicy pineapple to still be the star. It was one of the first dishes that landed at our table, but you might want to save a little to eat with your entrees, because it’s a wonderful, refreshing complement to most anything.
The kulcha ($14) announces itself before it arrives with its distinctive truffle oil aroma. But it’s not overdone on this puffy, soft naan-like bread that’s circular like pizza. It’s stuffed with green peas, and topped with goat cheese. I promise you will devour every last bit.
Slices of pork belly ($15) get sticky with a glaze of date molasses. The slices are unctuous, nearly quivering with fatty goodness. This dish is a complete guilty pleasure. If you need a little relief, pickled rutabaga will cut through some of the richness.
Sonoma duck meat is ground and formed into long kebabs ($19) that arrive off the skewer in a pool of creamy, herbaceous curry that packs a little bit of heat. The kebabs are quite tender and moist.
The grilled organic maitake ($24) is a surprise. It’s plenty smoky and meaty tasting, arriving on a foundation of soft polenta sprinkled with Parmesan. It very much resembles an Italian classic except for the Indian spice rub dusted over the mushroom.
The whole sea bream ($38) is slathered with Bengal mustard laced with cilantro and chili before being wrapped in banana leaves for cooking. The fish emerges moist, smoky and delicious. Curry leaf-infused rice is its perfect accompaniment.
For dessert, I was intrigued to try the chocolate tart ($14) — smooth, rich and dense like heavy ganache with a bottom layer of the fudgy Indian confection known as doda barfi. It’s because it comes with parsnip ice cream. Yes, that is correct. I like parsnips, usually roasted alongside a roast. So having this root vegetable in ice cream seemed mind-boggling at first. It does indeed taste like parsnip. And while you might not want to eat a huge scoop of it all on its own, it actually works alongside the tart. The nutty, sweet earthiness of the parsnip plays nice with the bitter, earthiness of the dark chocolate.
Get to know a new side of Indian cuisine at Rooh Palo Alto.