Palo Alto: Inside Rooh, a modern live-fire Indian restaurant

The modernist Cal-Indian culinary movement launched in San Francisco is making its way south. The new Rooh Palo Alto may share a name (“rooh” means soul) and an executive chef with the acclaimed SoMa hot spot that opened in 2017, but it’s no restaurant twin. The owners, Anu and Vikram Bhambri, are techies/foodies who don’t intend to turn their Rooh brand into a cookie-cutter chain. Each Rooh — whether here, in Chicago or New Delhi — is designed with a different look and dishes tailored to that location.

We stopped by for a preview of the restaurant that opens to the public today, Jan. 10. Here’s what we found:

THE VIBE: Where Rooh SF is bright and angular, Rooh Palo Alto exudes a warm, classic vibe. This glorious University Avenue space, formerly home to Arte Ristorante and Cafe Niebaum-Coppola, has been reimagined as an Indian mansion. Two welcoming mango “trees” stand sentry at high-top tables inside the front doors. Delhi-designed wallpaper, vintage photos and bookcase nooks line the interior, and a massive hand-painted mural of a woman overlooks the scene. Stunning red chandeliers hang from the 15-foot ceilings. The soundtrack that pulls it  all together is a traditional/contemporary mix curated by an Indian DJ.

THE FOOD: This Rooh’s signature ingredient is a live-fire kitchen, with more than half the dishes emerging from the embers. But virtually every one of these shareable plates — whether from the grill or from the adjoining kitchen — displays executive chef/partner Sujan Sarkar’s creative talent for marrying cuisines: Tandoori-spiced Maitake Mushrooms ($19) are served on a bed of polenta with parmesan. The Swordfish Tikka ($16) comes with miso and black lime aioli. Grilled Provolone ($16) is topped with Stone-Fruit Chutney and drizzled with chili agave. Feta mingles with the chunks of Tandoori Pineapple ($8). And the Seekh Kebab ($19), traditionally made with lamb, features Sonoma duck instead.

The seasonal, pan-India menu, while hip, nevertheless won’t disappoint those looking for classics such as Butter Chicken ($26) and Goat Berry Pulao ($32). And, yes, there’s Garlic Naan ($5) to sop up the sauces.

For dessert, Rooh’s pastry chef makes upscale versions of India’s popular Doda Barfi and Lagan Nu Custard. The former is a rich chocolate tart served with sunchoke ice cream; the latter is adorned with barley caramel and a rusk crumble (each, $13).

THE DRINK: Creativity abounds in the bar too, where the signature cocktails (each $15) are based on the ancient healing principles of Ayurveda and its six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. The astringent Jugaad, from central India, is made with mezcal and pickled raspberry. The bitter Pathrao combines Paul John whiskey, smoked chorizo butter and orange bitters. For a sweet after-dinner drink, consider the Adi-Polly, a blend of dark rum and roasted almond milk.

DON’T MISS: Start with Rooh’s ethereal version of Pao ($12), the dinner rolls that originated in the coastal state of Goa, where Indian and Portuguese cultures mesh, and are wildly popular in Mumbai. They’re baked to order in a small skillet, glazed with date molasses — and irresistible. Avocado Bhel ($13) is a refreshing riff on the Indian street snack. Sarkar’s version is made with green chickpeas, chunks of avocado, puffed black rice, radish and a touch of spicy togarashi.

PERFECT FOR … date night dinner or introducing your foodie friends to contemporary Indian cuisine.

DETAILS: Open for dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Monday. 473 University Ave., Palo Alto. The website is coming soon.