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Reinventing the Lentil

Two new modern Indian restaurants reject convention in favor of adventure, with frequently pleasurable results.

SLIDESHOW

Babu Ji's dining room.

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August 1 Five's dining room.

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August 1 Five’s bison keema.

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Babu Ji’s Colonel Tso’s cauliflower.

(4 of 4)

 

For years, my take on northern Indian food in San Francisco was something like my view of marital sex: nice, but not exactly filled with wild surprises. 

No matter where I strayed—a tandoori house in the Tenderloin, a curry joint in the Avenues—I could count on the rich comforts of lamb korma and the vinegary twang of chicken vindaloo. Sure, I would read the menus, but I was merely going through the motions, the ritual foreplay to an experience I’d come to know by rote.

More recently, though, I enjoyed a frisson of excitement at two new northern Indian restaurants, August 1 Five and Babu Ji. The former is more refined in its intentions; the latter shoots for casual chic. What they share is a cheeky attitude toward tradition and an endearing openness to adventure. Although both stay largely faithful to familiar flavors, they are also unabashed about tweaking time-worn dishes or thrusting ingredients into surprising roles.

Located near the Civic Center, August 1 Five draws its name from the date of India’s independence from the British Empire. If you show up looking for butter chicken, tikka masala, or any other popular Anglicized curry, you didn’t get the hint. Rather than spin his wheels in that old rut, the Indian-born chef Manish Tyagi, formerly of Rasika in Washington, D.C., treats dishes from his past with a dash of whimsy and a touch of haute technique. Deep down, his dhokla are not so different from the steamed chickpea cakes that he probably grew up on, if you set aside their underpinning of jalapeño jam and dusting of coconut snow. Tyagi’s palak chaat strikes all the sweet-tart notes one would expect from an Indian street food staple of fried spinach drizzled with yogurt and tamarind chutney. But I was struck by the improbable lightness of the battered greens, brought to a crisp without a hint of grease. In the San Francisco of my dreams, vendors would sell this dish on Union Square. 

In another dream, I’d have Google money, like August 1 Five’s owner, Hetal Shah, who worked for the tech giant before turning her attention to this expansive space. The dark-blue color scheme exudes a moody elegance that would be almost gloomy were it not for a giant photograph of the Maharaja of Patiala, a mustachioed fellow remembered for his appetite for food and drink.

No doubt he would have approved of the wine list, thick with options that stand up well to spice, just as he’d have had a soft spot for the bar’s cocktails (particularly the Cricket Cup, a yogurt-liqueur cousin of a Pimm’s cup). But nothing, I suspect, would hold his interest like the kitchen’s ampler dishes. Take the trio of grilled lamb chops, tenderized in a yogurt marinade, sprinkled with crushed pistachios, and stacked over bright-red dots of beet and daikon gelée; or the bison keema pao, which calls to mind an Indian sloppy joe. Pao are yeasty buns, as soft as Parker House rolls and here served four to a tray. The meat comes in a crock, ground and simmered, perfumed with cardamom and coriander, and garnished with a strip of bacon and a sunny-side-up quail egg. The bread is meant for sopping up the bison, which is exactly what I did. It was, in retrospect, an act of excess, but I’d do it again, even if the Maharaja wasn’t watching.


Another outsize image
of a mustachioed man gazes from a wall in the dining room of Babu Ji. This is the fictional Babu Ji himself, replete with tinted shades and a turban to complement his elaborate facial hair.

The chef Jessi Singh and his wife, Jennifer, launched the first Babu Ji in Melbourne in 2014, then cloned the concept in New York, where it has been hailed as Indian cuisine’s answer to Momofuku. Like Momofuku, it is very serious about not wanting to be taken too seriously. 

Here in the Mission, as in Manhattan, there’s a self-serve beer fridge. Grab yourself a Kingfisher: This is a menu made for a cold one.

There are two ways to attack: à la carte or via a $62 six-course prix fixe. The tasting menu opens with gol gappa, one-bite semolina shells that shelter a holy trinity of mint chutney, yogurt, and tamarind-date sauce; it closes with chai and biscuit-flavored kulfi, an ice cream–like dessert presented popsicle-style. 

In between, the kitchen sends out appetizers, curries, rice, naan, tandoori meats (the chicken is impeccable, the lamb chop chewy). The food comes in such quantities and at such quick pacing that dishes back up on the table. Servers hover. It’s a first-world problem, but the overall effect is more stressful than fun.

On another visit, I enjoyed myself far more by cherry-picking. Yogurt kebabs, for instance, are beautiful to look at and better still to eat, crumbly white croquettes set against a hot-pink palette of beet-and-ginger sauce. Colonel Tso’s cauliflower is exactly what it sounds like, an Indian riff on a Chinese dish you’ve had with chicken, its battered florets tangy-sweet with tomatoes and chilies.

Where August 1 Five leans toward understatement, Babu Ji cheerfully flouts convention. It’s hard to miss that message in its “unauthentic butter chicken,” a mild curry of tender chicken thighs whose butterless sauce owes its lushness to yogurt.

Nearly all of the menu is free of butter and ghee, which aren’t missed at all. There’s no need for either in the restaurant’s finest dish, a black lentil dal that takes four days of soaking, simmering, and straining to prepare. In that time, the beans turn creamy, and their aromatics grow complex and layered. My first taste of the dal, with its latent chili heat and hint of coriander, garlic, and ginger, recalled the flavors of my favorite curry houses. Sometimes when you shake things up, you remember what you loved about them all along.

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two.
August 1 Five
Cricket Cup.................................................$13
PK Negroni.................................................$13
Palak chaat.................................................$10
Dhokla.........................................................$8
Bison keema...............................................$17
Tandoori sea bass......................................$34
Lamb chops................................................$34
TOTAL.......................................................$129

 

Babu Ji
2 Kingfisher beers.......................................$16
Tuna tartare gol gappa................................$14
Yogurt kebab...............................................$14
Colonel Tso’s cauliflower.............................$16
Unauthentic butter chicken..........................$26
Babu’s dal....................................................$16
Assorted naan.............................................$10
Trio of chutneys..........................................$6
Chai and biscuit kulfi...................................$7
TOTAL........................................................$125


August 1 Five
524 Van Ness Ave. (at Redwood St.), 415-771-5900
3 stars

Babu Ji
280 Valencia St. (near Brosnan St.), 415-525-4857
2½ stars


Originally published in the March issue of
San Francisco

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