Taj Campton Place Restaurant
One of the complaints I hear from some people who aren’t fond of fine dining is that everything starts to taste the same once you frequent too many top restaurants. I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. If we’re speaking of the “average” nice restaurant that exists perhaps a dozen or two per every major city, then yes, ingredients, flavors and even service, while all good, can blend into a hazy memory. There are however, true standouts among the glitterati of fine dining establishments around the world; restaurants that carve a permanent place in our hearts through the imbuing of the chefs’ and teams’ passion, hard work and dedication to other worldly dining experiences.
Campton Place Restaurant at the Taj Hotel in San Francisco is one of those fine jewels, making its way into my most treasured of life memories where outrageously divine food was shared with loved ones in a beautiful setting with equally beautiful service. Under the helm of Chef Srijith Gopithinan, Campton Place was recently awarded a much coveted Michelin star, albeit belated in my humble opinion.
With the movement towards modernizing everything from transactions to interior design, it grows increasingly difficult to find classically appointed fine dining restaurants that rebelliously hold on dearly to fine draperies, hand-blown artwork, plush carpeting and a staff dressed in suits. I find umbrage with San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer who thoroughly enjoys Campton’s cuisine but find its interiors rather “staid.” Campton Place has achieved what seldom can today- classic luxury with genuine, effortless warmth, in design, service and cuisine.
Not every restaurant needs to strive for modernity as if we’re obsessively pursuing a spot in the Jetsons saga. Nothing of Campton Place reeks stuffy or snobbish, unless you would use such adjectives to describe Chihuly artwork, fine linens (as opposed to Dollar Store napkins) and comfortable seating. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with Dollar Store napkins but they don’t belong in any restaurant charging more than 10 bucks a dish. Campton Place is the restaurant you dine at when you want to feel like a true lady or gentleman. No hipsters allowed (well, at least if I had my way).
If I hadn’t had the blessing of eating the creations of some of the world’s top chefs, I would have stared at Chef Sri’s famed Spice Pot and wondered if I was really supposed to consume this living, breathing work of art. A small ceramic pot arrives at the table, billowing with fog- homage to the loveliness of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This pot begins to reveal its contents, a deliciously unraveling of edible flowers and a variety of greens- the gorgeous display belying layer upon layer of flavors. From tangy tamarind to smooth house-made yogurt and smoky black lentils, every bite was a mouthgasm, a symphony of balanced yet contrasting nuances that at the end, made you beg for more.
You’re free to order from an a la carte menu, though really, you should trust Chef Sri’s mastery and opt for one of the tasting menus, my favorite being The Spice Route. You will be taken to heights of culinary ecstasy the likes of which you will only experience at other worldly jewels like Le Bernardin, Sukiyabashi Jiro, Eleven Madison Park and the like.
From the Spice Pot alone, you get a hint at not only the genius that is to come but the heart of the chef, which is crucial in creating memorable meals. We do not spend our hard earned money at high end establishment to partake in just the best ingredients prepared by highly experienced hands. We do so to experience the heart and soul of the chef and every person on his team. There needs to be humanity and spirit in every bite to move us, to wedge that space in our memory.
In the dishes that followed (I almost always go for The Spice Route menu), Tandoori Shrimp, Maine Lobster, Alaskan Halibut, Tandoori Hen, it was clear that this meal was orchestrated to be a love-making session between guest and food. To call Chef Sri’s Shrimp “shrimp” seems a ghastly insult as it tasted like another creature- firm yet gentle, sweet and savory, smoky yet not totally Indian the way you would expect in your local hole-in-the-wall Indian joint. Maine Lobster was even more of a mouthgasm than the Spice Pot, hard to believe, I know. It was so buttery soft to the point I could cut it with the side of my fork.
The Halibut- every fish lover’s dream, herb crusted and slowly pan-roasted with a dribble of Romano beans (which I usually don’t care for but on this dish, nothing could be left on the plate). Tender, juicy hen with a crisp exterior was signaling the arc of the meal slowly winding down towards a subtly sweet finale.
What lingers on in my memories long after partaking in any meal at Campton Place (you should try their breakfast and lunch menus as well), is the uniqueness of each dish. Chef Sri’s brilliant melding of two very different worlds- that of his classical French techniques and presentation and that of his motherland, the complex, vivid and pungent India. Lest you make the mistake of tacking on the word “fusion” to Campton Place, that would be a gross error.
The level of sophisticated marriage of fundamental skills, touches of molecular gastronomy, local and international ingredients, Western and Eastern herbs and spices- at Campton Place, there is no fusion because you can no longer tell where one begins and the other ends. Just as you can’t tell if the mouthgasm you’re experiencing is from the Spice Pot or the Lobster, you can’t tell whether these dishes are French, Indian, Californian or just insanely delicious.
If you manage to pry your face out of the dishes for a moment, you’ll likely enjoy the recommendations of their awesome sommelier just as you’ll appreciate the quiet smiles of each server and the hands-on attention of the manager. And ladies, you’ll love the adorable little stool they provide for your purse.
If you haven’t been to Campton Place, I strongly urge you to make reservations for your next birthday, anniversary or business meeting. Better yet, just go to celebrate being alive. Chef Sri’s cuisine will make you all the more glad you are.
Unlike in Asia and Europe where hotel restaurants are household names in many circles and where food and service are seriously top notch, in America, hotel restaurants have been a dying breed, much to my horror. With this consideration, it is even more stunning that under Chef Sri’s leadership along with an exemplary team of managers, sommeliers, chefs, line cooks and servers, Campton Place has revived itself not only as a Michelin restaurant but one that is slowly but surely finding a home even with the most anti fine dining of patrons in hipster San Francisco.