Soon after chef Srijith Gopinathan landed in San Francisco, taking over the prestigious Campton Place Restaurant as executive chef, he found himself at a crossroads.
He had recently led kitchens across the world, from India to the Maldives, while simultaneously honing his craft within a specifically European-style framework at the Culinary Institute of America and, in particular, the two-Michelin-starred Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in England. His arrival to Campton Place, a restaurant that historically had been run by European chefs, seemed logical—at the time.
“So I started doing that the first year when I came here, but, unfortunately, I all of a sudden realized—this is America! It’s very odd when an Indian chef is coming all the way from India trying to do European food in America. It doesn’t sound too awesome,” Gopinathan says with a chuckle.
It was also a time of recession, a naturally stagnating period for fine dining, and, within a year of his arrival, he realized it was time for a major course correction. “I just made up my mind that this is just not working,” he says. “I needed to do something that I thought was honest and what I am, what the people who buy it would believe.”
Under Gopinathan, Campton Place deviated from its European tradition into his own vision of Cal-Indian cuisine. “What I decided to do is what I knew well while making sense to where I was,” he says.
It was a gamble that would prove to be a revelation, leading not only to his first Michelin star in 2011—kicking off a streak of stars that has continued every year since—but also gave Campton Place the singular distinction as the only South Asian-themed restaurant across the Western Hemisphere and Europe to carry the food world’s highest honor. This June, when the Michelin Guide released its first California statewide verdicts, Gopinathan received two stars, repeating the distinction he had received in 2016 and 2017.
Amid the praise, he is deflective of self-aggrandizement. “It so happens that I’m at the right place and right time with the right cuisine,” he says. “It’s not that I did something out-of-the-world.”
And, yet, Gopinathan is providing a version of high-end cuisine that would be considered exceptional in most any corner of the world.
The menu at Campton Place changes with the season, but the food consistently retains a sense of his South Indian roots— various chutneys, unexpected uses of cumin seeds, dosa with a surprising filling of kale and edamame. As with traditional Indian cuisine, the vegetarian courses are their own fully realized dishes, rather than, as with most upscale restaurants, a diminished version of the full menu. The spice pot, a signature mainstay, offers a rendition of “chaas” with papdi chaat, tamarind chutney and cilantro, while its plating provides a local homage, as dry ice and water produce a shroud of San Francisco fog around the dish.
But most dishes offer twists on tradition that are informed by the distinct surroundings of the Bay Area, a place where most any ingredient, Gopinathan notes, can be sourced locally like almost no place else in the world. An amuse-bouche of vadas, for instance, a savory fried breakfast snack typically made from lentils, incorporates ricotta from a local farm.
Yet the Cal-Indian style’s experimental touches speak most consciously to the diverse demographics of the Bay Area. For most of his diners, he sees Campton Place offering an entirely original foray into a less familiar cuisine. But for his Indian patrons, both those who are originally from India and second-generation Indian- Americans, he wants to give them a uniquely visceral reminder of their roots— in some ways, a new vision of home. 340 Stockton St., 415.781.5555