(This was published by South Bay Accent in December, 2012.)
Sachin Chopra was born to cook. Starting when he was a kid in India, this interest took him to culinary school in New York, then into some haute kitchens there like Restaurant Daniel, next sending him west to ply his skills in several of the South Bay’s notable Indian restaurants. Now owner/chef at two-year-old All Spice in San Mateo, he has invented some of the most exciting, unusual cuisine seen anywhere. No wonder Esquire recently named him one of four young “chefs to watch” nationwide. And he also just earned his first Michelin star.
As its name indicates, spices play a key role at Chopra’s restaurant but those expecting a riff on Indian food will find something entirely different. Just as spices have been used to enhance food for centuries, Chopra uses modern techniques from across the globe — and spices — to amplify what’s on the plate and bewitch his guests’ palates.
A good example of his multi-layered recipes and unexpected combinations is a lavender and cumin scallops starter in which the barest whiff of floral notes kiss three seared scallops that sit astride a divine melange of bacon, potato and a touch of black cardamom. Trust me, it works.
Even more amazing is Chopra’s pastrami-cured hamachi starter in which a hint of spice subtly contrasts with the flavorful fish along with unsweetened coconut mousse amped up by the accompanying picked onions and plums. Alternately sweet, tart, smoky and herbaceous, it’s a memorable choice.
One of many signature dishes is Ode to My Wife, which features beets, one of his wife/partner Shoshana Wolff’s favorite ingredients. Layered on top of a thin almond “crust” with sundried tomatoes are a savory ricotta cheesecake with herbs, a layer of diced red beets and another of gold beets. It’s visually stunning and delicious.
Indian cuisine has some wonderful breads, so Chopra tips his hat via a French-Indian fritter stuffed with mushrooms, potatoes and cheese, rolled up like a burrito and draped across a lip-smacking swath of stewed chickpeas. Another vegetarian starter is a delightful salad full of contrasts: warm shishito peppers cooked with corn and mushrooms with baby greens, perked up with pickled cabbage sauce.
Chopra’s creative juices keep on pumping in the entrees. His most famous dish sounds Indian — short-ribs vindaloo — but is instead a just-spiced-enough, slow-cooked hunk of tender, boneless meat on a bed of baby bok choy topped with molten goat cheese inside a thin squash wrapper. While this dish is too popular to remove from the menu, Chopra gets to play around with pork preparations, inventing new recipes for his seasonal offerings. His fall version, whimsically named “pig under a blanket,” is a long-cooked, juicy loin with tasty bean stew nestled under a “blanket” of melted, mild parrano cheese. A tart-sweet gastrique flavored with jalapeno and cardamom provides lovely contrast.
Happily for us, game appears on the fall menu, highlighted by another emerging signature dish: slow-roasted venison. It’s cooked to a lovely medium rare and sits astride an utterly yummy farro risotto with wild mushrooms and braised, sweet cipollini onions. The textural and flavor contrasts are indelible.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most traditional — which means, not very — entree is aab-e-gosht, based on a Middle Eastern lamb preparation that Chopra makes with flavorful wild boar. Cooked with ginger, fennel, almonds and a hefty amount of piquant spices, it’s served with savory saffron bread.
Traditional Middle Eastern aab-e-gosht becomes tastily international in the chef’s hands.
Given the many different exciting preparations that churn through the kitchen as seasons change, Chopra clearly has a way with fish — in particular, luscious seabass. The latest iteration involves perfectly cooked meat with a whiff of lemon verbena paired with corn, tiny potatoes and sunchokes in a citrus-miso cauliflower sauce. The most indulgent seafood offering is butter-poached lobster in which the rich sweetness is perfectly enhanced by a touch of vanilla. Riding shotgun is truffled shrimp mousse and celery-root puree.
Vegetarians will die and go to heaven after munching on one of Chopra’s three current non-meat entrees. Mint and purple potato gnocchi provide a creamy element that goes nicely with earthy sunchokes, kuri squash and brussels sprouts with cardamom butter. Meyer lemon gastrique is an ideal accompaniment. Also offered are a fall vegetable gratin that’s somewhat Italian and a crispy rice and lentil crepe stuffed with goat cheese and garlic tomato chutney.
Even desserts are out-of-the-park hits. House-made, exotically flavored ice creams are divine, such as carrot-cinnamon, corn, fennel, peach cobbler, bergamot clove, yuzu thyme and many more. However, what many guests pounce on is Chopra’s dark chocolate kulfi, based on a popular frozen dairy dessert from the Indian subcontinent. Like frozen fudge but better, it’s unctuously perfect with the accompanying smoky nut brittle.
Another dessert mainstay is a homey date and walnut cake often served with cinnamon-cardamom brown butter ice cream, which is like a multi-texture spice cookie. The lemon-ginger glaze gives it extra complexity.
Rapidly moving toward signature dish status is a newish choice that’s as playful as it is delicious .”Snowglobe” ice cream sundae comes to the table as a glass tumbler filled with pieces of cake, fruit, crunchy bits and a scoop of boozy ice cream (caramel scotch is one example), with a thin disk of bittersweet chocolate on top. Servers pour hot olive oil-chocolate sauce on the top, melting the “lid” into the goodies below. The upshot is a unique dish combining warm, cold, smooth, crunchy and more.
Just as the food at All Spice is delightfully different, so is the setting. Located in a 1906-vintage Victorian house containing three charming rooms and just 30 seats, the restaurant has none of the decibels and pushy servers that can be a bane to dining out in today’s world. Along with the jewel-toned, shimmery walls, inlaid wood floors, tasteful art and fireplace, this creates an air of old-fashioned comfort and romance. Running the front of the house is Wolff, a warm, gracious American who sidelines as a winemaker.
The total package at All Spice — mind-blowing food in a relaxing setting — has been drawing foodies and romantics in increasing numbers. The restaurant’s small size means reservations are coveted. And what doesn’t hurt one bit is that the tab for such utter pleasure seems modest for a dining experience unlike anything else around.
All Spice, 1602 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, (650) 627-4303, http://www.allspicerestaurant.com
HOURS: Dinner only. Tuesday-Friday, 5:30-9:30; Saturday, 5-9:30. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Appetizers: $8-15; entrees: $13-29; desserts: $7-9.