Noe Valley Voice December-January 2007

Store Trek

By Lorraine Sanders

Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new stores and businesses in Noe Valley. This month, our focus is on a spicy Indian restaurant packing them in on Church Street and a photography studio whose owner visited Siberia to teach and photograph orphans.

Clay Oven Indian Cuisine
1689 Church Street near 29th Street

Kaur Nachhatar taught her sons well. Since eldest son Nirmal Singh opened his first restaurant in San Francisco 15 years ago, the Northern Indian cuisine Nachhatar once cooked for her family has formed the backbone of the menu at her sons' growing local chain of restaurants, which includes popular dining destinations India Clay Oven on Clement Street and Tandoori Mahal downtown.

"We learned cooking from our mom. She's very happy. She came to cut the ribbon," says Singh, whose latest restaurant, Clay Oven Indian Cuisine, opened recently in the Church Street space formerly occupied by the short-lived eatery Bistro 1689.

Luckily for Noe Valley residents, Singh had wanted to open in Noe Valley for a long time. When the right space opened up, he jumped at the chance to move in.

"We were looking for so long. [People] always ask us, come to Noe Valley, come to Noe Valley," says Singh, who has been happy to see the familiar faces of regulars from his other restaurants popping up in the new location.

Since a soft opening on Oct. 17, followed by a grand opening celebration on Oct. 27, Clay Oven has welcomed patrons during lunch and dinner with candle-lit, white-clothed tables and an open kitchen and interiors featuring colorful murals by local artists Debi Tonge and Randy Odell, of Creating Art Moods.

"I choose to work with a rich warm paint palette, using colors that are celebrated and found in rich spices used in traditional Indian cuisine. The mural design depicts a simple romantic love story told though a series of eight trompe l'oeil style golden archways with a continuing landscape that links the mural story together," explains Tonge.

Fans of the Singh family's other restaurants will be happy to learn that Clay Oven has the same menu as its predecessors. Nirmal's youngest brother, Malhi Singh, is the restaurant's executive chef. Among his suggestions for first-time patrons are Kashmiri Chicken, a dish of clay-oven-roasted chicken and spinach; Tikka Masala, a popular dish featuring lamb, chicken, prawns, or fish in a spicy red sauce; and Hydrabadi Lamb, a signature offering of lamb in a sauce with apricots and potato straws. The tandoori entrees, including prawn, chicken, and fish tandoori, are other standouts.

The menu also features appetizers, such as vegetable samosas and onion fritters served with two kinds of chutney; lentil and chicken-lemon soups; and more than a dozen varieties of nan (baked bread). Entrees range from $7.95 to $15.95; appetizers from $1 to $5.95.

Among the desserts, which are $2.75 or less, are kheer, made with basmati rice, almonds, and pistachio nuts; and three kinds of ice cream: mango, coconut, and saffron-flavored.

For large groups, the restaurant's upstairs private event space can accommodate up to 40 guests. Takeout and free delivery are also available.

Clay Oven is open Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. A complete menu and order form are on the web site:

Fima Photography
1414 Castro Street at Jersey Street

Hire Fima Gelman to photograph your engagement or wedding celebrations, and you might end up getting a kissing lesson before all is said and done. But don't get the wrong idea. Gelman's instruction has nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of necking and everything to do with playing to the camera.

"Especially when I work with couples, I teach them how to walk, how to kiss so it looks good on camera. If you're in love, I want to show it," says Gelman, whose Fima Photography studio opened on Oct. 26 in the Castro Street storefront formerly home to Fidelity National Title Insurance.

Gelman's studio specializes in child and wedding photography, as well as family portraits and "model for a day" packages designed to put regular women back in touch with their beauty, which Gelman says can easily get lost in the midst of hectic professional lives, pregnancies, and the constant job of being Mom.

And while many of the wedding albums he's created for clients feature traditional images, Gelman enjoys pushing the envelope when his subjects are game. Scrolling through some images on his computer on a recent Friday afternoon, Gelman chuckled as he recalled the day he photographed a wedding party in a real police department lineup, as well as the time he staged a shot featuring the blushing bride pumping gas as her betrothed lounged in the front seat of the getaway car. "My goal is to give the client something they cannot get anywhere else," he says.

A lifelong photographer and longtime resident of Noe Valley who outgrew the studio space he set up in his home on Cesar Chavez Street, Gelman was thrilled to secure the 1,300-square-foot space, which he has renovated to house a welcome lounge, a new color printer that can produce images up to 44 inches wide, a professional studio with sleek hardwood floors and rich red walls, dozens of backdrops, ample office space, a changing room, and a client screening room complete with black leather furnishings and a 52-inch flat screen television used for presenting photographs to clients.

"We make it like a little party for [clients] when they come in, and it makes it more intimate," Gelman says.

Assistant photographer Nina Tsaregorodtseva and office and marketing assistant Jenna Hunt also work at Fima Photography, where services range from regular studio sessions ($250 sitting fee) and prints ($75 and up) to customized wedding packages ($1,895 and up). In addition to prints, the studio creates bound albums in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, as well as hardback books created with photos and text. The studio will also upload wedding images onto iPods to create a kind of mobile album.

When Gelman isn't in the studio, he's pursuing his love for what he calls "epic projects." In January 2006, Gelman, who is originally from Ukraine and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1973, traveled to Siberia to photograph and teach photography to children living in orphanages as part of Project Hope, which Gelman organized with the help of the San Francisco branch of the Children's Hope Foundation.

Gelman embarked upon the project after becoming intrigued with a problem common to orphans: without parents to document their youth, they grow up without a storehouse of photographs and family videos that they can look back on in later years.

Explains Gelman, "You have children going through the system, and when they're 18, they have no history of their childhood."

To see the book created from his visits to eight orphanages, drop by Gelman's studio, open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There is also a sampling of the Siberia photos at his web site: