Basque cafe bridges worlds old, new
By Lou Fancher
People tell Harleen Bajwa she’s an “old soul.”
It’s true that the San Ramon resident and owner of the new Basque Boulangerie Café favors timeliness, diligent work ethics, trustworthiness, strong family and community connections and traditions, charitable actions, forgiveness and compassion.
But the impression Bajwa first presents upon greeting a visitor to the family-owned restaurant that brings the food and feel of Sonoma to the historic Danville Hotel is of the Certified Public Accountant she once was. Not shy, but sincere in dodging the limelight, Bajwa is intensely private. Soon enough, prompted to speak not about herself but about the beloved Sonoma institution on which the 1,600-square-foot “second-generation” bakery is based, she’s downright talkative.
“People walk in and say, ‘This reminds me of wine country.’ It’s the farmhouse look, the same coffee we serve in Sonoma, a simple farm-to-table menu with dinners less than twenty dollars.”
The Danville location opened Aug. 16. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the 38-seat cafe and 18-seat private dining room feature a contemporary white-red-black color theme, open-to-public-view kitchen, impressive, mouthwatering baked goods display, outdoor eating area, artisan beers and an extensive array of Sonoma and Napa Valley wines.
Bajwa, her parents and her two brothers came from India to the United States when she was a teenager. Fleeing religious persecution and seeking security and opportunity, they found it in business ownership. Food was central to family life: Bajwa says her mother’s butter chicken, also known as chicken tikka masala, was a favorite. After earning a business degree at Fresno State University, Bajwa entertained clients in her work as an accountant.
“It became important knowing different foods. I find the more you’re exposed to different food cultures, the more you’re interested in freshness, healthy combinations, high-quality products.”
Among their holdings, the Bajwa family since 1994 have operated the cafe formerly known as Sonoma French Bakery that was started in 1956 by a family from southwest France. The café’s founders brought their French cuisine from a region where bakers learn their trade by word-of-mouth from the previous generation. Specialties include light-crumb sourdough, sweet French pastries, custard-filled beehive cake and more.
“We don’t have anything written down, I’m sorry,” Bajwa says, when asked for a recipe. “The bakers just learn from each other.”
Although it’s a single family business, the Sonoma location is anything but small. There are about 70 employees, catering and wholesale operations and a large following of customers greeted on a first-name basis that often form a line out the door.
“It’s a gathering place. We’re seeing the same pattern here. We’ve had 22 years there, but here, it’s developing quickly. We’ve already established a bond.”
Bajwa attributes the attachments people demonstrate by hugging her before departing to the same things that caused her to select the location: the warmth and quaintness of the hotel, the fact that they aren’t in a shopping complex. But customers who become regulars, she insists, return for the baked goods brought each morning from Sonoma and the carefully curated menu she planned with Napa-based chef Eric Magnani.
The menu includes bread-based breakfast foods and for lunch; quiche, soups, salads, hot and cold sandwiches. Dinner is the starring act and distinguishes the Danville location from its parent in Sonoma, which does not serve an evening meal. The substantial variety of soups, salads and small plates highlight locally sourced fruits and vegetables, in-house-made sauces and dressings, Sonoma cheeses, Petaluma chicken and Diestel turkey. Response to the dinner menu has already revealed a customer favorite: Roasted Petaluma Chicken (see recipe), prepared with smoked mustard cream sauce.
“We can’t change things in Sonoma, because customers wouldn’t welcome it,” says Bajwa. “But here, we can introduce Spanish influences or use of cheeses like havarti and Indian idiazabal instead of only Swiss or cheddar. We can add a twist with jams and have a greater variety of salads.”
Bajwa has worked 15-hour days since January. She says that construction included enough delays that she eventually became a general contractor to complete the renovations. Training employees allows her to sit down only 30 minutes a day but fires up her old-school philosophies — albeit influenced by a newfangled, 21st century twist: Yelp.
“I always read the reviews,” she says. “I take the feedback and figure out what needs work and what is something I can’t alter.”
Bajwa responds privately to customer complaints, advocating for a position that says good employees are created with time, not instantaneously.
“I’m not a saint, but I’m not going to fire anyone who is on time, works to do the best job possible and deserves a job,” she says.
Basque is a place where old-school values, old soul wisdom and cuisine that reflects contemporary culture bridges the geographic divide between Danville, Sonoma and an area sandwiched in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain.
The only thing missing is the item next on Bajwa’s agenda: “We’ve done a few donations, but I’d like to do more to help the poverty-stricken. I’m trying to find people we can serve who really need food.”