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A table of food at Besharam

Chef Heena Patel Is (Finally) Dropping Meat From the Besharam Menu

Reopening the award-winning restaurant for the third time in three years, chef Heena Patel says, “I have that confidence now” 

Award-winning Besharam has served Gujarati comforts to the Dogpatch for three years and opened and reopened three times, evolving the menu at each round. The restaurant first opened in 2018 as part of the Alta Restaurant Group, when chef Daniel Patterson insisted the menu should include five or six animal proteins, while chef Heena Patel says he never quite trusted her, a lifelong vegetarian, to actually cook them. It irked Patel that no one questioned a fine-dining chef putting out a vegetarian menu, but “when it comes to a vegetarian cooking meat, I get treated like I don’t know what I’m doing,” she later told Eater SF.

The restaurant relaunched in 2019 after Daniel Patterson’s partnerships with several notable chefs of color all dissolved, and Patel got her own financing and took full control of the menu. At that point, she dropped down to only three meat options, fish, lamb, and chicken, while breaking out more snacks and pickles. Besharam won Eater SF’s Restaurant of the Year, a somewhat unorthodox choice given that the restaurant was technically in its second year, but an acknowledgment of how strong it relaunched.

And now, reopening yet again in summer 2021, after switching up service styles many times during the pandemic, Patel is finally committing to a fully vegetarian menu. “I want to go back to my roots,” Patel says. “I want to showcase my food, without worrying how good or bad, how people might perceive it. Sometimes with humble ingredients, I always wondered, ‘Is it good enough?’ But I’m not doubting that anymore. I have that confidence now.”

Chef Heena Patel mixing dough by hand Eric Wolfinger

The new menu is a deeper exploration of Gujarat, her home state in western India, and diners are invited to travel through four cities: Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, and Rajkot. Each section includes three or four smaller dishes and a couple of mains. So two people could easily order just one city, or they could pick and choose across the menu. As always, her husband and partner Paresh Patel will be a warm and wonderful presence in the dining room, the perfect diplomat to guide you through the journey.

The new menu is a deeper exploration of Gujarat, her home state in western India, and diners are invited to travel through four cities: Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, and Rajkot. Each section includes three or four smaller dishes and a couple of mains. So two people could easily order just one city, or they could pick and choose across the menu. As always, her husband and partner Paresh Patel will be a warm and wonderful presence in the dining room, the perfect host to guide you through the journey.

But this is no literal travelogue. Chef Heena Patel’s dishes are always personal, filtered through her own memories and her particular taste for tender doughs, spicy snacks, and tangy chutneys. She’s keeping some familiar comforts, including the Drunken Pani Puri, saucy Dahi Wada, and Paresh’s Paratha stuffed with blue cheese. And adding fresh dishes: Khichu, a spicy rice dough rolled out and crisped into a cracker, her father’s favorite midnight snack. Idla, a savory cake made with a fermented batter and seasoned with black pepper. Mooli Kachori celebrates the humble radish, cooking down the bitter root and leaves, rolling it up in buttery roti, and topping with a fresh salad. Khichdi is thick with dal and rice and topped with fragrant black and white truffles. And the Ringan No Oro is inspired by her grandmother, who smoked eggplant over an open flame until it fell apart, before folding in fresh garlic, roasted garlic, and spices.

Patel says she kept meat on the menu for so long because certain diners still demand chicken curry. But that’s not her regional cuisine or personal style, and she’s tired of the overgeneralization of Indian food in the Bay Area. “It’s always ‘north’ or ‘south,’” Patel says. “But Gujarati food is itself a whole cuisine.” Her husband eats meat — they ran a deli together for years, and she feels perfectly comfortable cooking meat — but that’s not the point. And the price perception for vegetarian food is an ongoing battle, even when something like the Mooli Kachori takes so much labor to break down the radish several different ways. Still, Besharam literally means “shameless,” and Patel is not apologizing.

The one last bone for carnivores might be the addition of Impossible Meat, which now appears in samosas and kebabs. But, she promises, “you won’t miss it.”

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