See, I actually made a trek outside my "standard" stomping ground of the "mainland"—actually, I came to West Portal every couple of months back when I was a kid since my Uncle Gino used to have his hair salon there. He was a total study in contrasts: a compact Southern Italian hairdresser with a predilection for flashy and copious amounts of jewelry (including a snarling lion ring with ruby eyes), ascots, and shoes made of exotic materials, like lizard or ostrich, who was also one bad ass hunter. He made his own bullets, until he discovered the crossbow. Pheasants, bear, boar, moose, elk, even kudu—his den was like a taxidermist's pet project. Although Uncle Gino sadly left us some years ago, I was quite happy to see the Gino for Hair sign still holding it down on the main drag.
Okay, enough of my meandering down memory lane, it's time to let you know what on earth brought me to ~ROTI INDIAN BISTRO~. I'd heard of the Burlingame location, a contemporary space known for fresh and well-prepared Indian cuisine. The brothers Ash and Rajiv Gujral opened this location in the city about a year ago (they originally started with their uncle at North India, and then later opened ROTI on their own). The space is sleek and "moderne" and a far cry from the Tandooriloin, with dark wood tables, rosewood-backed chairs, a tiled floor, wood wainscoting, and large color and black-and-white photographs of India on the walls. There was even some hip, groovy music. The place was definitely busy, and this was only a Tuesday night. (Supposedly they do a huge take-out business too.)
This is not Chutney—you will actually have a chambray-shirted waiter who will serve you at your table, which comes already set with a wine glass. It's not Shalimar—you won't go home smelling like a tandoor hooker. And it's not Naan 'n' Chutney—tikka masala here will run you $13. ROTI is the type of place where I could easily bring my parents who were perhaps craving something more exotic and ethnic—but I just couldn't schlep them to the TL; it also had some families with kids, a few "ladies night out" tables, and plenty of couples sharing curries together.
The first hint that things were going to be tasty was the calamari ($8), spicy rings in a light batter that were cooked to a T. T is for tender. T is also for the tentacles that I missed a little, but not too much. But the big T, the Mister, if you will, is for what blew me away: the mixed tandoori ($11 half/$18 full), a medley of nicely salty ground lamb, incredibly juicy turmeric yellow-stained chicken, tender fish (it will be either salmon or mahi mahi) and prawns, which were the only things that weren't cooked perfectly—they were sadly overdone. I don't know why so many Indian or Pakistani places just thrash their chicken (besides Little Delhi or Darbar on Polk)—it was such a pleasure to be enjoying a tandoor chicken that wasn't leathery and overcooked or just abused; plus the fish had good spicy heat, and the lamb had some deep and well-seasoned flavor. It's no surprise this steaming and sizzling platter keeps sailing from the kitchen onto a number of tables.
Chef Davinder Pal Singh is also known for his goat cheese naan ($5) that is literally stuffed to the gills with goat cheese. So yes, it's where California and India intersect. (They also make their farmer's cheese in-house.) Bengan bharta ($9) had a pleasing smokiness with a hint of ginger and onion and (surprise!) it wasn't oily, while the bhindi masala ($10) was what really shimmied my sari—nicely sour okra sautéed with green and red pepper, plus sweet onion, garlic, ginger, and herbs and spices. Purr. The dishes all arrive in cute little ceramic bowls in colors of navy and wheat and terracotta, adding a nice visual (and textural) element. I am sure every woman in the restaurant is pleased with these ceramic dishes, mark my words.
A couple small stumbles included the navrattan korma ($10), a creamy and mild mix of veggies that seemed fresh out of a bag of the classic frozen vegetable medley, served in a cream sauce of almonds, golden raisins, and oddly, pineapple. And the kachumber ($3) came with some mealy out-of-season tomatoes. But the dessert of kulfi ($6), delightful rounds of Indian ice cream flavored with rosewater, saffron, and cardamom and topped with pistachio was a melt-in-your-mouth delight. (I will admit, I like that particular graininess you get with Indian ice cream.)
I'd like to come back and see how some classics like the chicken korma ($13) and the dal makhani ($9) fare—oh yes, and some saag gosht ($14). The menu does feature an interesting mix of Northern and Southern dishes, so vegetarians will be quite pleased with all the veggie options (and all the vegetables they use are organic). It's a higher-end Indian experience that is somewhat authentic but is also creative, so the spices weren't quite as hot as I've had elsewhere (although the tandoori choices sported some nice heat), and yes, there’s that goat cheese, and the budget-minded won't be super-thrilled with the spendier price point. But if you're seeking a classier sit-down option, definitely no cockroaches, and some gewürztraminer with your aloo gobi instead of BYOB, you just might want to consider heading over to the west side.
53 West Portal Ave.
Cross: Ulloa St.
San Francisco, CA 94127