The 100-seat dining room at Rooh features high ceilings, rattan dividers and a 15-foot-tall hand-painted mural by a local artist. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Avocado raita and centrifuge-mixed cocktails (…plus…garlic naan)

Rooh, Palo Alto’s newest Indian restaurant, purposefully straddles the line between traditional and modern.

The menu lists ingredients like truffles, goat cheese, miso and togarashi next to cumin and chutney. Butter chicken is cooked in a sous vide machine before being thrown on a custom wood-fired grill that pays homage to Indian open-fire cooking. Cocktails inspired by Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing tradition, are mixed in a small centrifuge machine behind the sleek bar.

“We want to change the perception of Indian food,” co-owner Anu Bhambri said in a previous interview.

Rooh opens for dinner Friday, Jan. 10, at 473 University Ave.

From top left, clockwise: roasted eggplant with cumin yogurt, pomegranate, pickled onions and cilantro; cauliflower and pineapples hang over the custom grill; goat berry pulao, butter chicken and avocado raita; and lagan nu custard, a dessert with barley caramel and a rusk crumble. (Photos by Elena Kadvany)

It’s the latest project from Anu and her husband Vikram, who run several Indian restaurants in U.S. and New Delhi, including a Rooh in San Francisco. Their executive chef and partner, Sujan Sarkar, is helming the kitchen in Palo Alto.

Rooh is distinct from the Bhambri’s other restaurants, most notably due to the open-fire grill installed at the front of the kitchen. It stretches 13 feet long and includes a tandoori oven, rotisserie, smoker as well as the grill portion. During a media preview dinner on Wednesday, lamb shoulder, pineapples and whole cauliflowers hung over flames while chickens turned on a spit nearby. Anu claims Rooh Palo Alto is the first Indian restaurant in the world with a wood-fired grill of this kind.

About 60 percent of Rooh’s menu comes from the grill, Anu said, including roasted eggplant, tahini-marinated chicken malai tikka, a Sonoma duck kebab and head-on prawns from Galveston Shrimp Company in Texas.

Wheel of Ayurveda cocktails (left) and open-fire cooking (right) at Rooh in Palo Alto. (Photos by Elena Kadvany)

In many dishes, Rooh riffs on tradition. Kulcha, a stuffed bread, is topped with goat cheese and truffles. Their take on bhel puri, a typical Indian snack, is a bright salad of crunchy green chickpeas, puffed black rice, togarashi and slivers of radish. A swordfish kebab is embellished with miso, mustard and black lime aioli.

“These are all different dishes we’ve seen in India in different forms and we’re trying to bring them in a more refined way,” Anu said.

The “Jugaad” cocktail is mixed in a centrifuge and topped with a strawberry-flavored air bubble. Bartenders use a $400 hand-held device, the “Flavour Blaster,” to create the bubble. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

The restaurant takes libations as seriously as food. The cocktail menu is organized around the six tastes of Ayurveda — salty, sour, pungent, bitter, sweet and astringent — with ingredients such as turmeric, green chickpea, black lemon salt, smoked pineapples and kappi, an Indian coffee. Drinks are named after regional Indian slang. The “Jugaad,” (slang for “get it done,” a bartender said), for example, is a bright mix of mezcal and pickled raspberry. The “Pathrao, a word for “friend” in Goa, features whiskey, smoked chorizo butter and orange bitters.

The wine list includes more than 120 labels and the owners plan to add more.

The space, formerly Italian restaurant Arte Ristorante, was designed to evoke an elaborate haveli, a historical Indian building with enormous courtyards and ornate archways. Two faux plants that frame the entrance are meant to mimic mango trees, Vikram said. One wall features framed photographs of 1900’s India and copper plates the owners brought back from Indian markets. A 15-foot-tall hand-painted mural of an Indian woman anchors the back of the 100-seat dining room.

Rooh Palo Alto will serve dinner from 5–10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on weekends. The restaurant will offer a happy hour.

Avocado bhel with green chickpeas, puffed balck rice, togarashi and radish. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Rooh is not the only contemporary Indian restaurant that’s opening in downtown Palo Alto. Just a few blocks away, Ettan (518 Bryant St.) is gearing up to open at the end of the month with Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Campton Place Restaurant in the Taj hotel in San Francisco, developing the menu.

Vikram doesn’t see Ettan as the competition — their concepts are distinct enough , he thinks — and besides, he said, there’s plenty of room for more expansive Indian food in the area.

From left, Rooh executive chef Sujan Sarkar and owners Anu and Vikram Bhambri. (Photo courtesy Rooh)

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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