When the Taj Hotel group took over the operation of Campton Place five years ago, they inherited a famous dining room, one that changed the very identity of high-end hotel dining in America.
The hotel opened in 1983 with the idea of mounting a top-tier Union Square restaurant that would draw San Franciscans. Then manager Bill Wilkinson recruited a young Midwestern chef, Bradley Ogden, to cook an all-American menu that proudly featured artisanal ingredients gathered from around the country. Ogden insisted on making everything from scratch, starting with the spectacular American bread basket that the City still misses. His American restaurant marked a complete break from the French hotel-restaurant model.
Since then, many famous chefs have put their stamp on the Campton Place dining room among them Jan Birnbaum, Laurent Manrique and Daniel Humm; but none since Ogden have broken new ground the way Srijith Gopinathan is doing now.
It took Gopinathan four and a half years of cooking French at Campton Place for this French-trained Keralan chef to mount a cutting-edge menu that is unmistakably his own. In a way, his cooking reminds me of Corey Lee’s exquisite East Asian-inflected dishes at Benu, but in this case French technique is in the service of South Asia.
To experience Gopinathan’s voice at its most expressive, opt for the $115, nine- course tasting menu, which must be ordered before 8:30 p.m. These nine-plus courses will not be too much, I promise, and the commodious booths and tables in a softly cosseted dining room facilitate an evening’s worth of conversation. What a rare treat!
A recent meal began with sevaya, a South Indian chickpea batter piped into hot oil that emerges looking like a little pretzel, but oh, so much better. The batter is spiced and the toasty brown sevaya, presented on a folded napkin, is crisp/tender, sprinkled with salt and spicy micro-greens–two divine little bites.
The exotic flavor ante was upped by another bite, a spiced granita or ice that dissolved on my tongue leaving tracks of ginger, finger lime, salt and cilantro–a thrill ride.
Three more playful courses followed:] one involving dry ice “fog” wafting around a miniature flower pot of interpretive pani puri, a crisp/soft rice and lentil snack; another a micro- salad on a sago cracker, and finally cauliflower florettes with Meyer lemon milk, kale and tamarind. Then came the big- boy dishes each more a knock-out than the next.
Quivering scallops were bathed in spicy hot, lime-scented turmeric sauce with bright green brussels sprout leaves and velvety morsels of potato, all nestled under a foamy blanket of yogurt whey. The flavors melded–and surprised.
One of the greatest lobster dishes I have ever tasted arrived as an Indian ragout with little deep- fried soybean vada or balls, sweet potato curls, and the sweetest, juiciest, barely warmed-through lobster meat in a chili-spiked lobster broth scented with curry spices. It was miraculous.
A cloud of avocado, arugula and lime captured in a tiny glass reset my palate for “tagliatelle, ” noodles of spice-infused, crispy lentil wafers called papadum, napped with white-truffled scrambled eggs. Who knew that Indian spice and Italian white truffles were made for each other? I’ve never tasted anything like it.
The savoriness of a little cylinder of lamb tenderloin with a pine nut pilaf, pineapple chutney and yogurt chips was resolved by a glass of grape snow. Then the dessert bites began: a few sips of warm chocolate with a couple of tiny toasted marshmallows (I think someone forgot the promised cardamom in this, which would have made it even better); mango-coconut cream-filled logs of mango, with kheer (rice pudding) ice cream; tiny cookies; then chocolates.
A flute of good French champagne to start, a glass of delicate Savigny-les-Beaune, and a German auslese with desserts, all recommended by the sommelier, turned out to be perfect with this poetic meal. (I usually find course-by-course wine pairing to be tiresome, but it might work here.)
The maker of this meal was raised by his grandmother, a great cook according to her grandson, near Trivandrum in Kerala state, way down on the southwest corner of India. He grew up eating coconut, tamarind and chillies, and all the fantastic South Indian snacks based on fermented rice and lentil batter. Though groomed to be an engineer, Sri, as he is called, ended up at the CIA in New York and apprenticed with Raymond Blanc in Oxfordshire. He opened the Maldives Taj but the tsunami closed it and sent him to us in San Francisco, where he finally took the big leap and created his Spice Route menu. It’s the real deal, a trip worth taking. Campton Place may have found the next big thing.
340 Stockton Street, San Francisco 415 781-5555 Open nightly for the Spice Route menu from 6 to 8:30 p.m.