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Spice Odyssey

Carolyn Jung | March 19, 2018 | Food & Drink Story Restaurants Eat and Drink

Restaurants Rasa in Burlingame and The Oxford in Sunnyvale, as well as San Francisco’s Dosa, August 1 Five and Rooh, may all boast a mutual modern Indian aesthetic and disposition. But they also share another considerable commonality: India-born owners who once—or still do—ply their trade in Silicon Valley, as engineers, managers and vice presidents at pillars in the technology world. What’s spurred this unique intertwining of food and tech in this way? “Working in tech, I think we are unafraid to fail or to try new things,” says Vikram Bhambri, vice president of product management for Dell, who owns Rooh with his wife Anu, a former senior software engineer at Microsoft. “When we all go out, we want to take non-Indian friends to an Indian restaurant we’re proud of, one that depicts true modern India. We’re trying to change the perception of what Indian food can be.”

And how. Diners accustomed to no-frills Indian eateries won’t find a buffet steam table in sight at any of these places. Instead, these establishments are all about Indian flavors taken to new heights with stellar local, seasonal ingredients finessed with precise techniques. Arguably, none have made as daring of a leap as the Bhambris, with their Good Times Restaurant Group that’s co-owned with Vikram’s brother, Rahul. The trio opened their first restaurant in 2006 in India. Now, they operate seven restaurants in India and two in the United States. Just over a year ago, they opened their first U.S. restaurant: the splashy Rooh in San Francisco, with its lounge-y vibe, vibrant riffs on traditional dishes, exquisite seven-course tasting menu, and hip Indian whiskey flight. In December, they followed that up with their second one, Baar Baar in New York City, which focuses on Indian-style tapas and cocktails.

The Delhi-born couple comes at food from both passionate and practical standpoints. Vikram grew up in an enlightened household, where he and his brothers were expected to cook and clean. To help pay for college in Australia, where he received a master’s degree, he worked as a dishwasher and line cook at Thai and Malay restaurants. Although he grew up in a vegetarian household, that practice went out the window in Australia, where he relished the freedom to let his taste buds roam. His influence rubbed off on his wife, who was a vegetarian until they met. With their dual careers as engineers, they soon realized that “all our investment was in tech,” Vikram says. “So we thought we should diversify.” With their shared love for dining out, opening their own restaurants seemed like a natural extension.

In 2014, fed up with the torrent of rain in Seattle, where they lived for 15 years and both worked at Microsoft, they moved to sunnier San Jose, where Anu could garden and their two kids could frolic in a backyard pool. For nine months, they scouted locations up and down the Peninsula, before settling on a South of Market spot for Rooh—named for the word “spirit” in the Urdu language—which remains their most high-end concept. Anu left Microsoft to concentrate on building the restaurant, which costs 1 ½ times more than any of their establishments in India. While Anu, Vikram and Rahul are the sole investors in the India properties, their U.S. ones were built with help from outside investors, namely friends who work in tech. Even so, “it was daunting at first,” says Anu. “A lot of people told us the restaurant business here is so tough. My parents still ask, ‘Why did you leave your good tech job?’”

One visit tells you why. Rooh gives the couple something far more difficult to achieve in the tech world: the ability to not only create something extremely personal, but to gauge almost instantly whether consumers embrace it or not. Chef Sujan Sarkar, who worked for a decade in London, has a way of reinterpreting traditional Indian dishes yet maintaining their soulfulness. Bhurgi may be a popular scrambled-egg street snack, but Sarkar transforms it into a chic egg custard served in its shell. He also makes use of atypical Indian ingredients such as goat cheese, goat butter and black truffles to turn kulcha, usually a plain flatbread, into an attention-grabber. The cocktail menu is inspired by ayurveda holistic practices that incorporate sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent flavors to balance body, mind and spirit. A best-seller is the Mustard Old-Fashioned, a buttery blend of ghee-infused bourbon, honey and mustard oil.

The Bhambris planned to have multiple restaurants from the start. Coming from tech, they know that the key to successful longevity comes from scaling up. They are far from done. They’re mulling other potential markets, including Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Chicago, Seattle and Boston. Diners from Saudi Arabia and London have implored them to open in their countries. “I always say to them: ‘Let us get this baby settled first,’” Vikram says. “Then, the world is our possibility.” 333 Brannan St., San Francisco, 415.525.4174

Originally published in the March/April issue of Silicon Valley

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