Unapologetically modern: Rooh brings Indian wood-fired cooking and serious cocktails to Palo Alto | Peninsula Foodist | Elena Kadvany | Almanac Online |


Local Blogs

By Elena Kadvany

Unapologetically modern: Rooh brings Indian wood-fired cooking and serious cocktails to Palo Alto

Uploaded: Jan 9, 2020

Rooh, Palo Alto's newest Indian restaurant, purposefully straddles the line between traditional and modern.

The menu lists ingredients like truffles, goat cheese, miso and togarashi next to cumin and chutney. Butter chicken is cooked in a sous vide machine before being thrown on a custom wood-fired grill that pays homage to Indian open-fire cooking. Cocktails inspired by Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing tradition, are mixed in a small centrifuge machine behind the sleek bar.

"We want to change the perception of Indian food," co-owner Anu Bhambri said in a previous interview.

Rooh will open for dinner this Friday, Jan. 10, at 473 University Ave.

From left, Rooh executive chef Sujan Sarkar and owners Anu and Vikram Bhambri. Photo courtesy Rooh.

It's the latest project from Anu and her husband Vikram, who run several Indian restaurants in U.S. and New Delhi, including a Rooh in San Francisco. Their executive chef and partner, Sujan Sarkar, is helming the kitchen in Palo Alto.

Rooh is distinct from the Bhambri's other restaurants, most notably due to the open-fire grill installed at the front of the kitchen. It stretches 13 feet long and includes a tandoori oven, rotisserie, smoker as well as the grill portion. Lamb shoulder, pineapples and whole cauliflowers hung over flames while chickens turned on a spit nearby during a media preview dinner on Wednesday. Anu claims Rooh Palo Alto is the first Indian restaurant in the world with a wood-fired grill of this kind.

Said grill. Photo by Marc Fiorito/courtesy Rooh.

About 60 percent of Rooh's menu comes from the grill, Anu said, including roasted eggplant, tahini-marinated chicken malai tikka, a Sonoma duck kebab and head-on prawns from Galveston Shrimp Company in Texas.

In many dishes, Rooh riffs on tradition. Kulcha, a stuffed bread, is topped with goat cheese and truffles. Their take on bhel puri, a typical Indian snack, is a bright salad of crunchy green chickpeas, puffed black rice, togarashi and slivers of radish.

Swordfish tikka with miso, mustard and black lime aioli cooked on a wood-fired grill at Rooh in Palo Alto. Photo by Elena Kadvany.

"These are all different dishes we've seen in India in different forms and we're trying to bring them in a more refined way," Anu said.

The restaurant takes libations as seriously as food. The cocktail menu is organized around the six tastes of Ayurveda -- salty, sour, pungent, bitter, sweet and astringent -- with ingredients such as turmeric, green chickpea, black lemon salt, those smoked pineapples and kappi, an Indian coffee. Drinks are named after regional Indian slang. The "Jugaad," (slang for "get it done," a bartender said), for example, is a bright mix of mezcal and pickled raspberry. The "Pathrao, a word for "friend" in Goa, features whiskey, smoked chorizo butter and orange bitters.

The wine list includes more than 120 labels and the owners plan to add more.

The space, formerly Italian restaurant Arte Ristorante, was designed to evoke an elaborate haveli, a historical Indian building with enormous courtyards and ornate archways. Two faux plants that frame the entrance are meant to mimic mango trees, Vikram said. One wall features framed photographs of 1900's India and copper plates the owners brought back from Indian markets. A 15-foot-tall hand-painted mural of an Indian woman anchors the back of the 100-seat dining room. 

The bar and dining room at Rooh Palo Alto. Photo by Marc Fiorito/courtesy Rooh.

Rooh Palo Alto will serve dinner from 5–10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on weekends. The restaurant will add a happy hour with "a special Indian-style street food menu" in about a month.

Rooh is not the only contemporary Indian restaurant that's opening in downtown Palo Alto. Just a few blocks away on Bryant Street, Ettan is gearing up to open at the end of the month with Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Campton Place Restaurant in the Taj hotel in San Francisco, developing the menu.

Vikram doesn't see Ettan as the competition -- their concepts are distinct enough, he thinks -- and besides, he said, there's plenty of room for more expansive Indian food in the area.