Why did Burlingame’s owner Rasa give up his Michelin star | Peninsula Foodst | The Peninsula Foodst

Written by Anthony Shaw


The second location for an unofficial San Carlos restaurant, Saffron Burlingame has a different menu focusing on South Indian cuisine. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Loken)

Twenty years ago, Ajay Walia left the lucrative realms of finance and technology to open a restaurant and spread awareness of the diversity of Indian cuisine. He wanted guests to forget the pictures of steamy table buffets, and winning a Michelin star at Burlingame’s South Indian restaurant Rasa in 2016 proved reliably a hit. So why did Waliya shut down Rasa to reopen as a second location for his unofficial restaurant, Saffron?

The original Saffron in San Carlos has been in business for nearly 20 years and has always focused more on North Indian cuisine, which includes some of the most popular Indian dishes here in the US like the buttery and creamy lentils of the dal makhani. It also provides a more casual experience compared to the elegant black interior of Rasa and delicately painted prawns in succession along with swirls of cucumber covered in edible blossoms. But on June 7, Rasa’s downtown Burlingame space reopened as Saffron Burlingame, inheriting his predecessor’s focus on South Indian cuisine and even some of his dishes, but avoiding the strict criteria associated with Michelin stars, which even evaluate how ingredients are sourced.

And Leah isn’t the only restaurateur to distance himself (willingly or not) from the world of fine dining after fine dining restaurants struggled so hard during the pandemic: Baume lost two Michelin stars for its launch as Baume’s more relaxed bistronomy. Even before the pandemic, the suicides of two French chefs were linked to the stress of running fast-paced fine-dining kitchens.

In fact, Walia’s decision to close Rasa was inspired in part by the challenges many fine-dining restaurants have faced during the pandemic.

“We suffered because (the dishes) were so used to serving them, now we had to throw them in a box and put a lid on them,” Walia says when explaining how Rasa struggled to focus on eating out. Saffron San Carlos, which served a number of dishes that traveled better in fast-food containers, had much stronger sales during shelter-in-place orders.

However, the pandemic has also inspired Wallia to reflect on his happiness and the unexpected problems that have emerged with honoring a Michelin star.

“What has become difficult is managing people’s expectations. Those weren’t Michelin expectations, those were people’s expectations of what Michelin should be,” Walia says.

He found that the questions he encountered at the beginning of his journey, including “Why not serve Nan?” and “Where’s the tikka masala?” It has been replaced by another set of complaints.

For example, Rasa State describes it as a neighborhood restaurant with high chairs for young children until closing day. However, once the restaurant got a Michelin star, online reviewers started complaining about the crying babies and the ambiance that was never subtle enough. “I don’t want people to come up with these evil expectations of what we should be,” Walia says. “Don’t come[at that time].”

Perhaps his biggest frustration is that Walia cannot escape the perennial assumption he set out to disprove two decades ago: Indian food must be cheap. “It’s an upstream game because you’re going against the tide, trying to beat perception,” Walia says of restaurants that serve cuisines that are not so highly regarded in the United States. He refers to these restaurants as “ethnic restaurants,” and chefs and writers including Lavanya Ramanathan have pointed out that the term “ethnic” applies only to certain kitchens in a way that devalues ​​them. Western European cooking usually escapes the label.

Although Walia has won a Michelin star and local Indian restaurants like Ettan, Aurum and Besharam have received widespread acclaim, uthappam filled with wild mushrooms and biryani prepared with organic chicken continues to raise complaints about price (and Walia still faces these grievances at Saffron). also).

Supply chain issues mean that some of Walia’s core components have jumped in price two or three times, and their costs vary widely. “Let’s say we buy tomatoes today for $10. Tomorrow we can pay $35 for the same tomatoes, but our menu prices won’t reflect[this change],” Walia says. Most appetizers at Rasa cost about $25 to $35, which are significantly lower prices than most Michelin-starred restaurants.


Kesar’s Pista Cream Puffs mix saffron and pistachio cream to make a filling. (Images provided by Kristen Loken).

Walia adds that hiring chefs who are skilled in Indian cooking is particularly difficult. He states that despite the romanticization of chefs and restaurants, cooking is a “necessary profession” and hard work.

Walia imagines a day when “ethnic restaurants” will no longer be measured with an asterisk for price. He hopes that diners can rate the quality of the meal without slipping into the fact that it is too expensive or that they can get the same dishes for cheaper elsewhere.

“With ethnic restaurants, people always just come in with a standard… ‘It’s way too expensive for what we got,'” he says.

This second casual San Carlos restaurant site is more than a copy, with a different menu focusing on South Indian cuisine. For example, Travancore fish is very popular in coastal Kerala and uses a coconut milk base flavored with black mustard and red pepper. Diners can still enjoy favorites from Rasa and Saffron San Carlos, including creamy butter chicken and chicken biryani.

The dessert menu was created in partnership with Hetal Vasavada, “MasterChef” contestant and well-known recipe developer for blog and cookbook “Milk & Cardamom”. Continuing from Rasa, the French Cardamom Brûlée technique and Indian flavors are incorporated, as is the case with Kesar Pista Cream Puffs, which use a mixture of saffron and pistachio cream in their filling. The ice cream will come from the local Koolfi Creamery, which is named after kulfi, the traditional Indian frozen dessert that is no-frills and thicker than ice cream. Saffron Burlingame also serves handcrafted cocktails using a spice blend and offers al fresco dining on its own patio.

While many challenges inspired Walia’s decision to close Rasa, his goals remain the same: to serve up quality Indian food that draws from his memories of home cooking, while changing the presentation with the influence of restaurants and local ingredients. And of course, he says there is still a long way to go in changing diners’ perceptions of Indian cuisine.

“Most of us have thought about what we were doing (during the pandemic) and what makes you happy,” he says. “I realized I’m just making people happy instead of what I want to do.”

Saffron, 209 Park Road, Burlingame; 650-340-7272, thesaffronrestaurant.com. Instagram: saffron_restaurants.

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