Rasa owner drops Michelin star and reopens as laid-back Indian bistro | New

Ajay Walia left the lucrative worlds of finance and technology 20 years ago to open a restaurant and spread awareness of the diversity of Indian cuisine. He wanted guests to forget the images of steam buffets. Earning 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 the Burlingame restaurant to reopen it as a second location for his more casual restaurant, Saffron?

The pandemic had a lot to do with it.

“We struggled because (the dishes) we were so used to presenting them, now we had to throw them in a box and put a lid on it,” Walia said, explaining how Rasa struggled to pivot to the dishes. to take away. Safran San Carlos, which offered a number of dishes that traveled best in take-out containers, saw much stronger sales during the pandemic shutdown.

The pandemic also inspired Walia to reflect on her happiness and the unexpected troubles that had arisen with the honorary title of a Michelin star.

“What became difficult was managing people’s expectations. And it wasn’t Michelin’s expectations, it was people’s expectations of what Michelin should be,” Walia said.

Like Rasa, Saffron Burlingame focuses on South Indian cuisine and even offers some of the same dishes, including creamy butter chicken and chicken biryani. The new restaurant, however, offers a more casual experience compared to Rasa’s sleek black interior and neatly arranged chutney shrimp in a row alongside swirls of cucumbers garnished with edible flowers. It also deliberately refrains from the meticulous standards associated with Michelin stars, which even assess the provenance of ingredients.

Walia is not the only restaurateur to have moved away (voluntarily or not) from the world of gastronomy after high-end restaurants suffered greatly during the pandemic: Baumé lost his two Michelin stars to launch himself as the most relaxed Bistronomy by Baumé. Even before the pandemic, the suicides of two French chefs were linked to the pressures of running fast-paced fine 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’s the tikka masala?” have been replaced with different types of comments.

Walia described Rasa as a neighborhood restaurant that had high chairs for toddlers. Once the restaurant earned a Michelin star, online reviewers began commenting on crying children and an ambience that was never quite refined enough.

“I didn’t want people to come with these ungodly expectations of what we should be,” Walia said.

Perhaps Walia’s biggest frustration is that he couldn’t escape the nagging assumption he set out to disprove two decades ago: Indian food should be cheap.

“It’s an uphill game because you’re going against the grain, trying to beat the perception,” Walia said of ethnic restaurants that serve cuisines that are not popular in the United States. He refers to these restaurants as “ethnic restaurants,” and chefs and writers, including former Washington Post reporter Lavanya Ramanathan, have pointed out that the term “ethnic” only applies to certain cuisines in a way that devalues ​​them. Western European cuisine generally escapes the label.

Even though Walia has won a Michelin star and local Indian restaurants like Ettan, Aurum and Besharam have been widely praised, dishes like utappam full of wild mushrooms and biryani cooked with organic chicken still evoked complaints about the price (Walia also encounters these complaints at Saffron).

Additionally, hiring skilled cooks in Indian cuisine is particularly difficult, Walia said.

Walia imagines a day when “ethnic restaurants” will no longer be measured by the asterisk of price. He hopes diners will rate the quality of a meal without glossing over whether it was too expensive or that they can get the same dishes cheaper elsewhere.

“With ethnic restaurants, people have always found this criterion of… ‘It’s very expensive for what we have,'” he said.

While various challenges inspired Walia’s decision to close Rasa, her goals remain the same for Saffron Burlingame: to serve great Indian cuisine that draws on her memories of home cooking.

Saffron Burlingame is more than a duplicate of the San Carlos site. It offers a different menu with South Indian cuisine, such as the Travancore fish moilee, which is popular in the coastal state of Kerala and uses a base of coconut milk flavored with black mustard and red chillies.

Its dessert menu was created in partnership with Hetal Vasavada, the “MasterChef” contestant and recipe developer known for the “Milk & Cardamom” blog and cookbook. Continuing from Rasa, the Cardamom Brûlée fuses French technique and Indian flavors, as do the kesar pista cream puffs, which use the combination of saffron and pistachio whipped cream to create a filling. The ice creams will come from the local Koolfi Creamery, which plays on kulfi, the traditional Indian frozen dessert that is not whipped, so it is much denser than ice cream.

Saffron Burlingame also serves craft cocktails made with spice blends and offers alfresco dining on its terrace.

Safran, 209 Park Road, Burlingame; 650-340-7272, thesaffronrestaurant.com. Instagram: @safran_restaurants.

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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication to Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see, and do in Silicon Valley.