Words by Johanna Harlow
For chef Manish Tyagi, navigating the food scene is like grooving to the music. After transitioning from San Francisco’s August 1 Five Restaurant to Aurum, a high-concept Indian restaurant in downtown Los Altos, Manish says his tempo needed to shift. “San Francisco is like hip hop,” he notes. “It’s more like jazz here.”
Expounding on this, Manish reflects back to San Francisco’s millennial-heavy clientele. “It’s more electric,” he observes. “They were more adventurous, more ‘Ooo’s and ‘Wow’s.” Los Altos, on the other hand, “It is more about comfort. Here you have to be very subtle. Very mellow. The vibe is more relaxed.”
Matching this cadence, Manish built Aurum’s menu by starting from a place of trust. “I don’t play around with the recipe that much because people have a connectivity with that recipe,” he explains. “I don’t play around with the base. I build around it.” Diners need to feel confident, he says. “You have to create a balance, a bridge between your cuisine, authenticity and their acceptance. That’s where the food should lie. To make them more comfortable so they can say, ‘Oh wow, let’s do it! Let’s try it out!’”
That said, aesthetics, texture and flavor are all fair game for Manish’s highly innovative and intentional approach. “I don’t do a hundred percent the way it has been done before,” he says. “I try to have crunch and some kind of soft texture in it. I have a sweetness and a sourness in it. I want umami in it.” In essence: “Flavor bombs!” he declares.
Manish’s dish selections also make Aurum a bit of a maverick: “We have a lot of unconventional recipes; not even Indians have heard about them. So that’s the play: bring that nostalgia and surprise for everyone.”
Take Aurum’s Mr. Potato appetizer. It’s a potato chaat, a familiar street food from West Bengal, but Aurum doesn’t load the bowl up with chutney as might be expected. “Mr. Potato comes like, ‘I’m the king of this dish,’” Manish describes. “The sauces and other elements are there in layers.” There’s also the jhalmuri, a puffed rice and radish salad from northeast India not often seen on menus—and served in a statement-making, smoke-infused jar.
Then there’s dosa. “Every Indian knows about it,” Manish says of the savory crepe. “If you think about Italian, you’re gonna have pizza and pasta on your mind, right? If you think about South Indian, you think dosa.” He keeps it on the menu, but as a bridge. “I can tell people, ‘Hey, this is also from the same region. And you don’t know about it.’”
That same approach carries over to Aurum’s cocktail menu. While boasting inventive concoctions, it still evokes familiar flavors like cardamom, mango and chaat masala. “Every drink has that hint of Indianness in it,” Manish promises.
Manish himself grew up in Dehradun, an Indian city in the Himalayan foothills. Assisting his mom with entertaining their home’s frequent guests, he became his mother’s sous chef, entranced as she “worked her ladle like a magic wand, spinning exquisite dishes in the kitchen.” While his brother acted as server and dishwasher, Manish helped turn the chapatis and plate the food before handing off to his brother. He also acted as taste tester. “I’d tell her whether the salt was perfect or if adjustments were needed. I developed those taste buds, you know? ‘This is the perfect level of spice or salt.’”
In his 20s, Manish cooked at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, before becoming an executive chef at Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. “You’re roaming where emperors used to entertain their guests,” he describes of this surreal time in his life. “My work gave me a chance and opportunity to roam around India and look at the cuisine—why they do it that way.” He adds, “Indian cuisine is very wide and vast. Different places have a different feel to the same ingredients.”
In 2009, in what turned out to be a life-changing year, Manish’s cooking class gained recognition in National Geographic’s “10 Great Cooking Classes Around the World” and he also earned the coveted “Best Chef” designation by The Gallivanter’s Guide. Catching the attention of a highly successful restaurateur, Manish found himself whisked off to Washington, D.C. to become head chef at Rasika West End. He’s cooked his way across the States ever since.
To taste a part of this chef’s culinary journey, order Manish’s award-winning I’m Not Pasta dish. Five years ago, on an episode of Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay, Manish trounced the celebrity chef with this Indo-Italian-style spinach paneer lasagna with brown garlic, fenugreek leaves and mozzarella. “It’s a mind game,” Manish recalls of the competition with a chuckle. “I had butterflies in my stomach. The floor is sinking… Time, clock, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.” But, “Once I survived the first round, then I was more confident. After the warmup, you’re ready for the main game!”
In Aurum—a vibrant space of coral and aqua with golden chairs, gilded ferns painted on the walls and flower-like sconces—Manish dishes out paneer and paratha, kebabs and curry with alacrity. “I’ve worked in so many downtowns,” he says—but there’s something about this small town that thrums like smooth jazz. “Los Altos is a very tightly-knit community,” he reflects. “You have to go with the flow, the rhythm.”
You’ll have to let us know… Can you taste the music?