After a lengthy three-year application process, Indian restaurant Bhoga will soon debut at 468 Castro St. (between Market and 18th streets), the former home of Italian specialty foods store A.G. Ferrari.
Vacant since 2015, the space has been of concern to many in the Castro, which is struggling with a neighborhood-wide retail vacancy crisis.
In 2016, Prem Makkena, the owner of Mission-based Indian restaurant Deccan Spice, announced he'd be opening a second location of Deccan Spice there.
But a seemingly endless array of city permitting issues delayed the project for nearly three years. Makkena said he was told by SF Planning that the space would not require a change-of-use permit to open, only to have the city pull the plug at the last minute.
"When we were almost about to open last year, the city [told us] that the existing hood that A.G. Ferrari was using for the last 20 years was never permitted, meaning A.G. Ferrari was operating without a permit," Makkena explained. "So, we had to legally start the permit applications (mechanical, fire, building, civil, etc.), which took over a year and a huge amount of capital expense."
Former Castro Merchants president Daniel Bergerac tried to intervene on Makkena's behalf, to no avail. When his term came to a close in March, he described the incident as "a sore spot."
Nonetheless, Makkena persevered — and along the way, decided to turn the space into a more upscale concept than Deccan Spice. It's now called Bhoga, which means "sensory pleasure" in Sanskrit, and will have a different menu than Deccan Spice's.
Last month, Makkena hired Mel Oza to be the restaurant's executive chef. Formerly the general manager and wine director of Palo Alto's now-closed upscale Indian restaurant Mantra, Oza said he wants to bring a similar experience to the Castro, which lacks a high-end Indian eatery.
“The overall process has been pretty rough,” Oza said. "[But] the Castro neighborhood has been really supportive in all our attempts to open its doors, and it's time for us to serve the community."
The 49-seat dining room has been updated with tufted leather banquettes and booths, while the walls are now adorned with colorful murals and gilded Sanskrit verse, courtesy of artist Miguel Herrera Dominguez.
The menu is focused on shareable, small and mid-sized plates in the $13-29 range, such as "cauli lollis" (battered, fried cauliflower florets in a soy-chili-ginger glaze) and pav bhaji (buttered buns with a mashed vegetable medley cooked in a Mumbai-style black masala spice blend).
Larger plates ($23-39) include a braised lamb loin chop with tamarind-sesame glaze and a vegetable-upma cake, and king mackerel with rechado, a Goan-style spice rub.
Desserts will include cannoli made with shrikhand (a sweetened, strained yogurt) and kulfi, a frozen dairy dessert, with cacao and walnuts.
Brian Howard, who designed the drink menu for Civic Center's high-end Indian spot August (1) Five, is behind the drinks at Bhoga as well. Cocktails ($13) will include the Sunehre Sapne (a sparkling wine cocktail with golden glitter) and Tamma Tamma (a ginger-tamarind-tequila cocktail). The restaurant will also offer house-brewed beer and an Old World-heavy wine selection.
Makkena said that all of Bhoga's permits are now in place, and he's focused on putting finishing touches on the space and getting staff ready. While it's not set in stone, he's projecting an opening date of next Friday, November 8.