Ajay Walia left the lucrative worlds of finance and tech 20 years ago to open a restaurant and spread awareness of the diversity of Indian cuisine. He wanted guests to forget images of steam-table buffets. Winning a Michelin star at his south Indian restaurant, Rasa, in 2016 should have authoritatively proven his success. So why on June 7 did Walia close down the Burlingame restaurant to reopen it as a second location of his more casual restaurant, Saffron?
The pandemic had a lot to do with it.
"We struggled because (dishes) we were so used to presenting, now we had to throw them in a box and put a lid on them," Walia said, explaining how Rasa struggled to pivot to takeout. Saffron San Carlos, which offered a number of dishes that traveled better in takeout containers, had much stronger sales during the pandemic shutdown.
The pandemic also inspired Walia to reflect on his happiness and the unexpected troubles that had sprung up with the honorific of a Michelin star.
"What became challenging was managing peoples' expectations. And those were not Michelin's expectations, those were people's expectations of what Michelin should be," Walia said.
Like Rasa, Saffron Burlingame is focused on south Indian cuisine and even features some of the same dishes, including creamy butter chicken and chicken biryani. The new restaurant, however, provides a more casual experience compared to Rasa's sleek black interior and chutney prawns neatly plated in a row alongside swirls of cucumbers topped with edible flowers. It also deliberately abstains from the meticulous standards associated with Michelin stars, which even assess how ingredients are sourced.
Walia is not the only restaurateur to distance himself (willingly or not) from the world of fine dining after high-end restaurants struggled heavily during the pandemic: Baumé forfeited its two Michelin stars in order to launch as the more relaxed Bistronomie by Baumé. Even before the pandemic, the suicides of two French chefs were linked to the pressures of running fast-paced, fine-dining kitchens.
Walia found that after earning a Michelin star, the questions he faced at the start of his restaurant journey, including "Why don't you serve naan? and "Where is the tikka masala?" were replaced with different kinds of comments.
Walia described Rasa as a neighborhood restaurant that had high chairs for toddlers. Once the restaurant earned a Michelin star, online reviewers started commenting about crying children and an ambiance that was never quite refined enough.
"I didn't want people coming in with these ungodly expectations of what we should be," Walia said.
Perhaps Walia's greatest frustration is that he couldn't escape the enduring assumption that he set out to disprove two decades ago: Indian food should be cheap.
"It's an upstream game because you're going against the flow, trying to beat the perception," Walia said about ethnic restaurants that serve cuisines that are not widely appreciated in the United States. He refers to these eateries as "ethnic restaurants," and chefs and writers, including former Washington Post features reporter Lavanya Ramanathan, have pointed out that the term "ethnic" is only applied to certain cuisines in a way that devalues them. Western European cooking usually escapes the label.
Even though Walia won a Michelin star and local Indian restaurants like Ettan, Aurum and Besharam have received widespread acclaim, dishes like uthappam full of wild mushrooms and biryani prepared with organic chicken still evoked complaints about price (Walia encounters these grievances at Saffron, too).
In addition hiring cooks skilled in Indian cooking is especially difficult, Walia said.
Walia imagines a day when "ethnic restaurants" are no longer measured with the asterisk of price. He hopes that diners will assess a meal's quality without sliding in a jab that it was too pricey or that they can get the same dishes cheaper somewhere else.
"With ethnic restaurants, it's always been that people just come up with this yardstick of ... 'It's very expensive for what we got,'" he said.
While various challenges inspired Walia's decision to close Rasa, his goals remain the same for Saffron Burlingame: serving good Indian food that draws from his memories of home cooking.
Saffron Burlingame is more than a duplicate of the San Carlos site. It features a different menu with cuisine from south India, such as the Travancore fish moilee, which is popular in the coastal state of Kerala and harnesses a coconut milk base flavored with black mustard and red chilies.
Its dessert menu was created in partnership with Hetal Vasavada, the "MasterChef" contestant and recipe developer known for the blog and cookbook "Milk & Cardamom." Continuing from Rasa, the Cardamom Brûlée fuses French technique and Indian flavors, and so do the kesar pista cream puffs, which use the combination of saffron and pistachio Chantilly cream to create a filling. Ice creams will come from the local Koolfi Creamery, which plays on kulfi, the traditional Indian frozen dessert that is not whipped, so that it's much denser than ice cream.
Saffron Burlingame also serves craft cocktails harnessing spice blends and offers outdoor dining on its patio.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.