Dining At Copra
When it comes to upscale modern Indian cuisine, Chef Sri Gopinathan and business partner, restaurateur Ayesha Thapar, seem to have the magic touch.
Their first restaurant, Ettan in downtown Palo Alto, opened just before the pandemic hit. It not only managed to survive that turmoil but come out of it flourishing.
In February, the duo debuted Copra, just blocks from Japantown in San Francisco. Taking its name from the word for the dried flesh of a coconut, Copra showcases Southern Indian coastal cuisine, the type that Gopinathan, who held two Michelin stars at San Francisco’s Campton Place Restaurant, grew up eating. You’ll find surprising dishes here such as octopus and bone marrow that you’d be hard pressed to see on any other Indian menu around (well, except at sister restaurant Ettan, that is, where octopus does appear).
If my visit last week is any indication, Copra is hitting it out of the park. The restaurant was jamming and jammed — and this was on a Wednesday night.
Expect it to be even more so now that the Michelin Guide California just announced this week that Copra is one of 19 new establishments that will be in the 2023 guide to be released later this year.
Like Ettan, Copra is a looker. Whereas Ettan drips with chandeliers and vivid marine blue tones, Copra is done up with earth tones, enough plants (artificial) to resemble a greenhouse, and more macrame than you’ve probably ever seen in one place at one time.
Among the house cocktails is the Harvest & Happiness ($18), which arrives looking quite austere. The unadorned clear cocktail is dry, grassy and potent with cucumber, celery, vermouth, vodka, and a touch of absinthe.
A must-order is the chutney palette for the table ($17), which brings a selection of tangy wild gooseberry chutney; smoky and fruity burnt chili-tamarind chutney; coconut green sambal; and ghost chili chutney. Each of them is spicy but in varying degrees. The ghost chili one was plenty hot, but thankfully, not enough to blow out your taste buds. A big basket of thin, crackling crisp papadams and quinoa crisps accompany. Like with salsas and tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant, you will find yourself dunking in throughout your meal because you just can’t help yourself.
One can practically make a meal out of just the small plates because they are so enticing. In fact, our foursome nearly did. The soft egg appam ($28) is a thing of beauty. Both a Southern Indian and Sri Lankan specialty (the areas border one another), it’s like an edible lacy bowl, a thin pancake made from fermented rice flour that gets cooked in a wok-like pan to create its distinctive shape. This one has a runny egg yolk at its center, as well as fine shavings of Perigord black truffle, whose fragrance you smell the moment the dish lands on the table. Tear into it with a fork or your hands to enjoy the classic luxurious marriage of eggs and truffle.
Crisp tiny little cups known as poori ($14) get filled creatively with the spicy South Indian soup known as rasam that’s usually served warm. Here, it’s a cold version with passion fruit rather than tamarind providing the unmistakable tang. It comes alongside in a small pitcher. Simply pour a little into one of the poori that hides radish and sprouted chickpeas, and enjoy in one big bite. The delicate crunch of the shell gives way to a gush of tropical tasting liquid.
The shrimp Vennai roast ($18) is billed as a favorite of the chef’s. They are roasted in chili chutney that carries a big kick. This might have been the spiciest dish we had. Coated in lentils, the shrimp end up crispy on the outside, too, and finished with lovely brown butter.
This is definitely the first time I’ve had slow-cooked octopus ($19) at an Indian restaurant, and it was as tender as any at a fine Italian or Spanish establishment. Rubbed with fragrant curry leaf, it was garnished with refreshing pomelo and orange supremes.
The street-food-inspired Thattukada fried chicken ($16) are boneless pieces, not battered, but seasoned with fennel seeds, red chilies, and plenty of black pepper, and garnished with crisp curry leaves and tasty masala crumbs. For those who know well the searing fried chicken at Ettan, this one is more moderate on the heat level.
The char-grilled bone marrow ($18) is simply amazing. It’s decadent to be sure but somehow the masala gravy makes it slightly less rich, if that’s possible, while adding warmth and hominess. Tear off a piece of the flaky, buttery, layered parotta that’s like roti, and smear on the saucy marrow for a bite you will long remember.
These were actually all under “small plates.” For the “large plates,” we went with the black cod pollichathu ($42), The fish comes wrapped in banana leaves in a hot cast iron pan. Unfold it to reveal tomato-strewn cod that’s so moist. It comes with ghee-cooked rice and a moilee broth fragrant with cinnamon and ginger that you pour over the fish.
The Mysore masala dosa ($24) is folded into a huge triangle laid atop a mound of spicy, chunky mashed potatoes. It arrives with more chutneys and sambals to customize your dosa however you like.
The lamb shoulder Chettinad ($39) is slow-braised in a wealth of warm spices like star anise and cardamom, as well as dried coconut, making for one luscious dish with fall-apart tender meat. It comes with more dosa, these softer and thicker, making them perfect to dip into the sauce liberally.
Chef Gopinathan sent out on the house the “VOD — Vegetable of the Day” ($32), three home-style vegetarian dishes. Varuval is typically spicy dry-fried chicken, but here shredded jackfruit stands in, sharing the serving dish with a sweet-savory, thick coconut rice pudding that acts as a foil for the spiciness. There was also smoked green lentil stewed with onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Lastly, spring fava beans and Blue Lake green beans were enfolded in a thick sauce of yogurt, coconut cream and cumin.
If your tongue is tingling, save room for dessert, especially these two that will reset and refresh the palate just like that. “God’s Own” Coconut Variation ($15) is reminiscent of Hawaiian shave ice. A mound of icy, coconut water granita hides little pieces mango, basil seeds (like chia seeds in texture), coconut jelly, and candied basmati puffs. Every spoonful is a little different, and equally invigorating.
The semi-frozen bay leaf slice ($12) is cold and creamy like semi-freddo and dusted with vivid powdered bay for a boost of minty, pine-y flavor. The leaf’s subtle bitterness is countered by the sweet, sticky, candied kumquats that lie underneath.
One dinner and it’s readily apparent why folks are clamoring to get in here.
More: Dining At Ettan