It’s been almost a month since chef Ajay Walia began making headlines not for the richly flavored South Indian food that helped his Peninsula restaurant Rasa earn Michelin recognition and a nod as the Bay Area’s best Indian restaurant from former San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer — but for his willingness to turn away from all the accolades by pulling the plug on the restaurant entirely.
“Our focus changed from doing what we were doing to maintaining what we gained,” Walia told the Chronicle in May. So he decided to temporarily close Rasa and take several weeks to flip it into a second location of his 20-year-old San Carlos staple Saffron. Walia says he hopes pushing the reset button will help his team set a more sustainable pace. “I can’t say that it was not hard,” Walia says of the decision. “Change is always difficult for everyone but it’s the only constant. The pandemic made everyone do things we never thought we’d have to do and we were no exception.”
When the restaurant reopens Tuesday, June 7, Rasa will have transformed into Saffron, though Walia says he was conscious of not wanting to alienate the Peninsula diners who loved Rasa’s southern Indian menu. So, moving forward, they’ll still be able to order some of Rasa’s most recognizable dishes including the restaurant’s Bombay Sliders featuring spiced potato fritters stacked on pav bread with tangy tamarind chutney and a southern Indian riff on bread pudding called cardamom brulee. But there will be new northern Indian-style dishes to dig into as well, including general Tso’s cauliflower, an Indian-Chinese small plate starring cauliflower wrapped in tomato-curry sauce, and an expanded selection of main dishes including lamb curry, makhani daal, and lasooni saag. Walia says he also pushed to make the new menu more approachable to those with dietary restrictions; for example, the restaurant now serves a vegan and gluten-free dosa made from millet.
Walia says the menu allows him to refocus the restaurant on the simple goal he set out with two decades ago: to serve delicious Indian food made with great ingredients and offer diners excellent service, adding that he never imagined the restaurant would garner a Michelin star. “For me it was not about goals or awards,” Walia says. “When we opened 20 years ago it felt like when we wanted to go out and celebrate we had to go to a non-Indian restaurant. We wanted to change that.” Looking at the Bay Area dining scene today, he feels like he’s succeeded in that mission.
The space will also feel different to diners familiar with Rasa’s jewel tone color palette. With the aesthetic makeover, Walia aimed to bring more light into the space, adding lighter colors and more plants. Overall they’ve actually reduced the total number of seats in the bi-level restaurant, Walia says, because they wanted the room to feel more open, less crowded. Most of the staff has also stayed on through the transition, he says, noting that it’s the team’s commitment to the refined vision for the restaurant that made the changes possible. “We’re the same people,” Walia says. “We’re the same sensibility. If they liked us them, I’m sure that they will love us now.”
Saffron (209 Park Road, Burlingame) reopens on Tuesday, June 7 and will serve dinner from 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.