Although Daniel Patterson has been moving from chef to restaurateur this year, that doesn’t mean you won’t still find him in the kitchen. It just might not be solely his kitchen. He’s already turned the dormant Haven space in Oakland into Reem Assil’s Palestinian-Lebanese wonderland Dyafa and the original Alta CA in Mid-Market into Nigel Jones’ Jamaican hotspot Kaya. Now, the third of his mid-tier Bay Area restaurants — a shorter-lived Alta, in Dogpatch’s Minnesota Street Projects — has since become Besharam. Taken together, the trio (re-)opened in fairly rapid succession, part of a larger project to shift the ownership stakes within Patterson’s Alta Group. Going beyond an inclusive-tipping policy to mitigate the persistent disparities between front- and back-of-house, Patterson empowers people of color then steps back. On a recent Friday night, that meant shuttling food to the floor.
A project of La Cocina alumna Heena Patel, Besharam is blends California ingredients with the cuisine of Gujarat, the vegetarian-heavy state at the western tip of India. From its $59 prix-fixe menu to its assertive and unusual cocktails, it’s got a lot of virtues, and different sets of them for lunch and dinner. Besharam, which means “without shame” in Hindi and Urdu, isn’t always as provocative as its name suggests — and it’s not as aggressively hip as Valencia Street’s now-shuttered Punjabi restaurant, Babu Ji — although dishes like the pav bhaji ($14) contain more than a trace of humor. But in all, I suspect Patel’s method is pretty simple: introducing San Francisco to hard-to-find regional dishes and California-fying them, largely with greens.
The pav bhaji, a sort of build-your-own sloppy joe made from vegetable curry and a lightly fried egg on between buttered buns, forgoes the raw onions that would accompany it from a street vendor and swaps in a bit of arugula salad. Delicious? Definitely. But shameless? Not in the sense of brazen, and definitely not like William H. Macy’s character Frank Gallagher doing whatever he wants. The agreeable hospitality gets in the way of that — a remark that is not a quibble. Patel has called Besharam her “Disneyland,” and her jovial husband works the floor, explaining the provenance of this and that.
A few skippable things hover at the periphery. Shakarpara, or sweet biscuits ($5), looked and tasted like the last cookies from an Italian bakery after everyone had picked over the box; for once, this reviewer can suggest skipping carbs. For something salty and incredibly satisfying, though, a cone of channa, or crisp chickpeas, will make you dump the crumbs into your palm. Same goes for the gotas, or dal fritters. As the seasons have shifted, so has the overall menu, which has also shed à la carte service for one of the better prix-fixe deals around. Don’t miss the empanada-like kachori in a thick tomato rasam — except in favor of the thoroughly compelling makai, a preparation of corn with a creamy dill sauce. (Notice how summer’s two best vegetables showed up there?)
A black cod moilee, or fish curry, from the coastal state of Kerala ($19 at lunch) was without question the best diurnal dish. Since black cod takes beautifully to almost whatever it’s marinated with, the coconut and the dill-heavy rice kept things light and simple. Slightly squeaky when dressed with a garlicky chutney and rolled in flatbread with some grilled vegetables, Besharam’s paneer wrap ($15) was probably the least innovative thing on any visit, but it, too, succeeded through sheer simplicity.
Where unconcealed outrageous appears is in the all-$13 cocktail list, with inventive drinks like the Chaat Up & Drive! (gin, rhubarb, chaat masala, mint, and lime), a variation on a julep with a pop of cumin and coriander. An oddball well worth a try is the Kya Karu Ram, Muje Budha Mil Gaya!, which is named for a song in a four-hour Bollywood epic from 1964 and blends Bombay Sapphire with grappa and the purple blackberry syrup known as kala khatta, plus a rim of black salt. Presented in a copper mug like a Moscow Mule, it tastes mostly of corn and softens dramatically as the ice melts. It’s like nothing I’ve ever had. And like a carbonated mocktail, a turmeric lemonade ($5) might be the only thing that can put a thick lassi to shame.
Alta’s spartan decor gets a boost from a comic-book-style mural by Maria Qamar of a woman wearing a maang tikka that looks a lot like a halved avocado. Qamar designed some of the plates, some of which remonstrate diners with “That’s ‘Miss’ Besharam to you!” and “Save the drama for your Amma.” If you like her impish humor, check out her Instagram, which has tea saucers that say, “Parvati, this chai tastes like shit.” Now that is shameless — and, in relation to almost anything at Besharam, a total lie.
Besharam, 1275 Minnesota St., 415-580-7662 or besharamrestaurant.com