By Sarah Henry
Photos by Paige Hermreck
There’s a new Top Chef in the Temescal, one with a mighty spicy pedigree and a fan base from her days popping up in San Francisco with Mumbai-inspired mobile food—not to mention a following from a certain popular cooking show contest (Season 6, for those who care).
Meet chef Preeti Mistry of Oakland’s Juhu Beach Club, now serving up her take on Indian street eats in a buzzy brick-and-mortar home bedecked with bright-pink paint and trippy wallpaper featuring a funky monkey motif. Designed by Mistry’s partner Ann Nadeau, the cozy restaurant (formerly SR24), aims to evoke a Bollywood beach vibe. Think fun fare, groovy tunes, sweet space. A Mumbai-by-the-Bay, whose name is a nod to that city’s favorite seaside hangout, where Mistry has spent time with her family, savoring its celebrated street food.
Mistry serves slider-style sandwiches, known as pavs, which come on custom buns from Brian Wood of Starter Bakery (profiled here, Harvest 2011). The restaurant’s signature taste may well be the vada pav—a slider stuffed with a spiced fried potato puff, pickled red onion, and packing plenty of heat, thanks to a chutney made with ghost peppers. It also illustrates Juhu’s mission in just a few flavor-filled bites: a showcase for traditional tastes and techniques with a dash of new school creative license, from the 36-year-old chef who trained in London at Le Cordon Bleu. Since then, the pseudo-mohawked Mistry has honed her kitchen skills cooking a range of global cuisines in various restaurant settings, including for Bon Appétit Management Company, where she once ran the show at arguably the coolest cafeteria in the country, Google HQ.
And she’s on a mission to educate eaters about what so-called Indian food can look—and taste—like. “The idea of Indian food in popular culture is either cheap food at a mom-and-pop place or high-end fine dining with white tablecloths,” says Mistry, who grew up in the U.S. but whose family hails from India. “I’m neither of those things. I’m trying to do something casual, modern, and fun with nuance and quality ingredients. The notion of whether or not it’s ‘authentic’ is incongruous to me.”
The menu at Juhu, which opened in March, is short and unfussy, featuring savory appetizers like samosas and sev puri, pavs, soups, salads, and curries. There’s beer, wine, and her own in-house drinks, including the sassy lassi, made with prized Alphonso mangoes and lime yogurt, it promises a potent sweet and salty punch. Also worth sipping: the Darjeeling Limited, a refreshing blend of half cilantro lemonade and half tea, and a hot chai that’s perfectly balanced to this tea lover’s tastes. For dessert: Straus Family Creamery soft-serve ice cream with apt add-ons such as salty curried peanuts, chai-spiced pecans, fennel candies, and tropical fruit drizzles like passion fruit, guava, or rosewater.
Mistry, a bit of a big kid herself, has a children’s menu (butter chicken, house fries), a smart move given the location, and kids’ meals arrive in cute, color-coordinated tiffin tins designed by Diane Castellan of Vivo. Indeed, a playful feel permeates the entire place, from the bike loaded with metal tiffins that occupies a loft spot to the snacky “Desi Jacks,” which is Mistry’s version of Cracker Jacks: curried popcorn with peanuts and pistachios sweetened with caramel. They’re difficult to resist.
Mistry, who was slated to open a restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District (the deal fell through), is delighted to be working in walking distance of her new home in arguably one of Oakland’s most vibrant food enclaves. And judging by the steady flow of diners even early in the week, the neighborhood is happy to have her.
Juhu Beach Club: 5179 Telegraph Ave, Oakland; open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner; 510.652.7350, juhubeachclub.com