Aurum and authenticity: Modern Indian restaurant strives to bring hidden gems of Indian cuisine to the mainstream

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

No restaurant displays what the gold standard of authenticity can be more than Aurum. With a name literally meaning gold in Latin, the modern Indian establishment in Downtown Los Altos strives to showcase Indian cuisine just as pure as its namesake.

Aurum was founded in December 2020 by owner Anupam Bhatia and chef Manish Tyagi, who, according to Tyagi, see themselves as “ambassadors to Indian cuisine.” They use modern adaptations of classic dishes to deviate from the standard, popular and sometimes “incomplete” portrayal of Indian cuisine found on most Indian menus.

“The Indian restaurant scene is pretty backward because it’s a very stereotyped menu,” Tyagi said. “That’s where Aurum pitched in and tried to break that boundary.” 

In addition to authenticity, Aurum emphasizes the importance of presenting its dishes in a visually appealing manner.

“People eat with their eyes, so the food has to look appetizing,” Bhatia said. “Presentation is such an important part of your whole dining experience.”

A popular dish of Aurum, the creatively titled Mr. Potato Chaat, exemplifies that quality of presentation in a modern twist on the popular Indian snack. Going against tradition, the potato is spiralized, but accompanied by the usual yogurts, chutneys and spices. 

Working to craft a menu with dishes like this chaat in mind, each option is crafted and heavily tested before it is permanently added to the menu. For this, Aurum trusts its customers.

“[Guest] feedback is so important, and that’s how we try to change and adapt to what the local client wants,” Bhatia said. “Positive criticism is one of the most important things you can have in your life.”

From his personal experience, Bhatia believes that adapting to your environment and understanding your clientele’s needs is an uncompromisable aspect of success. Bhatia took these needs into consideration when he was scouting a location for the new restaurant. 

“[The Bay Area] has a loyal customer base,” Bhatia said. “I looked at Los Altos and people love Indian food. There’s a lot of diversity of population we have here.”

To serve this population authentic Indian cuisine, Bhatia partnered with chef Tyagi, who’s been in the industry for 20 years, and has worked at several restaurants. He met Bhatia at the chain Amber India, where they became professional acquaintances as well as good friends.

Described by Bhatia as a “damn professional,” Tyagi said his life has been filled with cooking. From a young age, he said he helped his family in preparing food for guests.

“I belong to a very ‘foodie’ family,” Tyagi said. “My mom is an excellent cook, and my dad is a very passionate cook.”

Tyagi graduated from university with a degree in hospitality and he said his journey toward a cooking career wasn’t easy. Many times, Tyagi said the overwhelming workload and “cutthroat” nature made him want to give up.

But Tyagi’s perseverance eventually led him to compete in the cooking game show BeatBobbyFlay, where contestants compete against Master Chef Bobby Flay and a panel of renowned cooks judges their meals. He advanced to the final round, where, using the same creativity and experimentation he now applies at Aurum, he snagged the win.

“I put my own perspective on a traditional dish,” Tyagi said.“I created the Saag Paneer Lasagna there. Chef Bobby Flay was making the traditional style of an Indian dish, and I was making a non-traditional style… [but my] flavor profile was very Indian, and that’s where he was lacking.”

The success of his dishes on the show influenced the modern yet authentic flavors Aurum strives to serve.

Tyagi, who runs the kitchen and “back of the house,” works closely with Bhatia, for whom hospitality is a priority. 

Bhatia’s savvy comes from his 26 years in the restaurant industry, and although like Tyagi, he struggled with the demands of the career at first, he said that the sense of improvement was inspiring.

“Your sense of learning every day, sense of achieving something every day, your motivation towards making the business successful … and your zeal and enthusiasm just keeps you [working],” Bhatia said.

He started his first restaurant, Broadway Masala, in 2013, and one year later founded Spice Affair. Bhatia’s knowledge and experience in the industry assisted him in planning for the restaurants’ survival through the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, opening the restaurant was a huge risk, but I would say it was a calculated one,” Bhatia said. “The confidence was that the product was good, and the offerings were good.”

Bhatia carefully engineered every detail of a takeout-only menu with Tyagi, making sure the items were optimal to be enjoyed at home.

Bhatia asked Tyagi to work with him on Aurum after August 1 Five — the restaurant Tyagi was working at — closed due to the pandemic. The pair had faith in their vision and worked together to create a menu with dishes specifically created to stay fresh, reheat effectively and travel well.

Starting out with only this take-out menu, the restaurant quickly attracted customers. The positive responses in the first several months were at times overwhelming, but encouraging, Bhatia said.

When the state allowed indoor and outdoor dining, they began to expand their menu, focusing more on the presentation of the dishes. Aurum facilitates a positive customer experience through their colorful interiors and casual atmosphere.

Aurum’s colorful interior.

“While the restaurant didn’t want to get into a white-tablecloth, very fine dining restaurant, we also didn’t want to get into a run-of-the-mill restaurant,” Bhatia said. “We wanted to be upscale; we wanted it to be colorful; we wanted it to be fun.”

With humorously named dishes, mural-covered walls, and close customer relationships, the atmosphere reflects Aurum’s driving principle of bringing people joy through Indian cuisine.

“Feeding people is one of the best feelings you can get,” Bhatia said. 

‘A refreshed perspective’: Manresa Bread’s attention to detail definitely isn’t crummy

STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

This story was published by a student in our middle school intro to journalism program.

As one of the first bakeries in the Bay Area to mill its own flour, Manresa Bread’s attention to detail has influenced the way it operates from its founding to the recent changes it’s made due to COVID-19.

Avery Ruzicka founded Manresa Bread in 2015 after a customer suggested that she sell her bread — which she was making at the time for the bakery component of Manresa Restaurant — at the local farmer’s market. From there, Ruzicka realized her bread had potential to be sold on its own, and her new company, Manresa Bread, was born. 

Although it is a separate business from Manresa Restaurant, Ruzicka still provides the bread for the restaurant, and the focus on quality and detail that she got from working there has struck with her. Like Manresa Restaurant, Ruzicka and her employees prioritize and pay close attention to the way the materials and ingredients are sourced, making it a predominant part of their ideals. 

“The primary resource in a bakery is flour, so the natural way to do that was to mill our own flour,” Ruzicka said.

Manresa Bread has locally sourced and milled its own flour from the time of its founding, ensuring that the products it creates are of the highest quality. This focus on quality is a perfect example of the impact that working at Manresa Restaurant had on Ruzicka and her personal values.

Although she is now a successful bakery owner, Ruzicka originally wanted to be a food writer.  Once she got a taste of the restaurant industry, however, she knew it was her calling. After finishing culinary school in New York, Ruzicka met David Kinch, the founder of the three-star Michelin restaurant Manresa.

She found herself drawn to the restaurant’s ethos of proper sourcing, excellent craftsmanship and quality, and she eventually became its baker. With Manresa restaurant, every single aspect mattered when it came to the experience of the customers, and Ruzicka wanted to translate that idea into her bakery.

When the pandemic hit and she was forced to close down the bakery, Ruzicka’s approach to customer satisfaction was put to the test more than ever.

“We wanted to keep our team safe, we wanted to keep ourselves safe and we wanted to keep our customers safe,” Ruzicka said. “The big question was just, ‘What do we do?’”

Two weeks later, Ruzicka returned to her bakery, accompanied by only the head baker, the pastry chef and the retail manager, only offering contactless pickup from their commissary. Ruzicka said she wanted to reopen the business systematically, in a way that kept as many people at home as possible. 

Then, a few months later, one store was reopened, but Ruzicka said she tried to be systematic in the way she opened up. Instead of going back to operating in the pre-pandemic way, Manresa Bread picked through the way the business was organized and carefully planned their actions.

“[The closing and reopening] allowed us to really review our systems, our organization, our communication and our individual roles,” Ruzicka said.

Before the pandemic, Ruzicka said their process was just opening store after store, but instead of returning to that system, they focused on building back up and improving their current shops.

Being able to start from the ground and build up the bakery again gave Ruzicka opportunities to change the way the business was structured fundamentally by reorganizing positions and altering the way the bakery functioned.

More emphasis and importance was placed on planning ahead, since there was so much that the bakery needed to prepare for. It was important for the bakery to have a game plan at all times. Part of that plan was solidifying and altering the role of each individual job in making the business operate.

Those changes had a lasting effect on Manresa Bread and the way it operates today. 

“We were able to come to our jobs with a new and refreshed perspective,” Ruzicka said.

When asked about customers’ reactions, she noted that they were very empathetic about the no-contact situation.

“They understood that we were kind of partners in the process of trying to keep everything safe,” she said. 

Being a bakery, Ruzicka said it’s been easier for Manresa Bread to adjust and grow to meet the COVID-19 constraints, as customers don’t linger like they would in a restaurant.

Throughout the pandemic, Ruzicka has been grateful, both for her customers’ support and the ease with which she was able to adapt her business to meet new challenges.

“The pieces that make a team and a business successful and happy during COVID are the same things that were important pre-COVID,” Ruzicka said. “We wanted to be part of the community, and that’s what we’ve been.”