One of the entrées was delayed the first time I ate at Neptune’s. I was on a weekend brunch date catching up with a friend, and because we were chatting, it hadn’t really occurred to us that the kitchen was running behind. That is until the chef suddenly appeared at our table with her apologies and a complimentary plate of toast, which was notable because this was no ordinary slice of bread.
This toast was made from a loaf of pain de mie, cut thick and generously slathered with homemade ricotta and a layer of bright red strawberry jam (find the recipe below). The plate was adorned with slivered almonds, pea shoots and the prettiest of edible garnishes — orange, purple and magenta flower petals. The composition and the taste of that tart jam put any previous memories of avocado toast, its ubiquitous cousin, to shame.
Anyone can make a slice of toast. Not everyone can serve it on a plate to command the eye’s attention. Naomi Elze-Harris can. At the age of 25, Chef Elze-Harris is now at the helm of Neptune’s, a former Foster’s Freeze located near the Crown Beach end of Webster Street on Alameda.
Yes, you did read that correctly: a Foster’s Freeze. The shape of the building may look familiar from the outside — the sliding take-out window remains intact — but once you step inside, the nautical chic decor should be a tip-off that a culinary coup has taken place. It’s also evident in every one of the fresh ingredients you taste. The menu heralds the arrival of a chef who’s trying to divert your attention away from other beloved brunch stalwarts in the East Bay.
On a recent visit, Elze-Harris talked about her approach to cooking and how she made her way to this corner of Alameda. She started to train at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York only to drop out. It was as a line cook that she honed her trade in Bay Area restaurants starting in 2012 at Green’s in San Francisco and Oenotri in Napa. But it was while she was living in San Francisco in the Richmond district and working at a wine bar called High Treason on Clement Street that she met Eugene Kim of Snowbird Coffee, one of Neptune’s co-owners, at a neighboring cafe.
“I walked into the Richfield one morning for coffee and Eugene asked me if I knew any chefs who were looking for jobs, and I was like, ‘I don’t know, maybe.’ He’s like, ‘Okay, well we need someone who can make fried chicken.” I was like, ‘Yeah, I can make fried chicken.’” Over three days, she made five different kinds of fried chicken. “I brined chickens, broke chickens down, made all sorts of crazy stuff, and then sauces, different breadings, different brine procedures, and then took them into the Richfield and we all sat around and ate chickens.” All the effort paid off — Kim offered her the job at Neptune’s.
The next step was developing the menu. Elze-Harris recalled that the biggest focus for her employers was the fried chicken. “Initially, the owners [Eugene Kim and Dave Feng of Snowbird Coffee, Rob Feng of Cookiebar Creamery, and John Ngu of Peter’s Kettle Corn] wanted to do a southern-style restaurant. Or like a soul food restaurant with a little bit of a Filipino twist,” Elze-Harris said. That accounts for Neptune’s lumpia starter.
The turn toward brunch came later. The menu, Elze-Harris said, “changed dramatically as we got into the space and realized how small our kitchen actually is. Most of our hours are daytime hours, so we wanted to push and make sure the menu was a little bit more breakfast-y.” The food at Neptune’s is California cuisine, with Southern and Asian influences. The addition of Zippy’s Chili, for example is a nod to Elze-Harris’ birthplace. She is half Korean and was born in Hawaii but grew up, for the most part, in Kansas. “Hawaiian food is really trendy right now, and when we were developing this menu it was a lot of, ‘How can I make all of the fast food that I ate and loved as a kid better?’”
Saying that she’s made the mundane waffle merely “better” is an understatement. She doesn’t withhold the fact that it’s a standard buttermilk pancake batter. “The trick,” she said, “is in the cooking.” That means paying close attention to what’s coming out the sides of a temperamental waffle iron, and how much steam is being released. But what makes her waffle uncommonly good, Elze-Harris said, is that “we’re a farm to table restaurant. I put a ton of effort into making sure that we’re getting really, really good ingredients, and the sweet waffle is a way to showcase that.”
Now that it’s summer, she’s buying beautiful peaches from local farmers markets. The honey is from Marshall’s Farm, and the ricotta Neptune’s makes in house is from Clover milk from Petaluma. It’s one of two ingredients that sets her sweet waffle apart. The second is that homemade jam. She says they’re buying the strawberries now from Hall’s Organic Farms of Coastal California, based in Salinas. “The freshest that I can find, obviously the most beautiful ones, and then we also buy seconds. They’re a little overripe, or maybe they’re a little ugly. That’s really great because that just means the farm is wasting less food, and I’m wasting less food, and the cost is better for everybody.”
The price of brunch at Neptune’s, with entrees ranging from $12 to $16, has stirred up some online criticism, particularly from Yelpers. Months into her tenure there, Elze-Harris continues to scan the site for feedback. Some of it has been useful. She’s refined the variety of grits Neptune’s uses, and she’s streamlined the process of cooking the fried chicken à la minute. As for the negative comments, she said, “We get a lot of feedback from people who are upset that we’re not Foster’s Freeze anymore. Then we get a lot of people who come in here thinking that we’re still a fast food restaurant, and they get really upset and badmouth us. When what we are is a slow food restaurant, and our prices are higher to reflect the produce that we’re buying and the way we’re paying our staff.”
Now that Neptune’s is getting its sea legs, the staff is trained and there are enough of them, her 80-hour work weeks are slowly tapering down to more manageable levels. What she’s gleaned from the experience of opening a space from scratch is significant. “You’re not just taking responsibility for the kitchen and what’s coming out of it. You’re taking responsibility for how your servers are presenting your food, and what that conversation is, and how people are communicating and greeting people at the door. Suddenly, you’re not just the back of house manager, you’re overseeing the whole thing.”
Naomi Elze-Harris’ Strawberry Lemonade Jam
Note: This recipe is not suited for actual canning, as there isn’t enough acid in it to be canned safely. Elze Harris recommends using older berries, as they’re sweeter and also more cost effective.
Makes about 1.5 quarts
2 quarts strawberries
2 Meyer lemons
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon apple pectin
Hull and wash strawberries.
In a blender or a food processor, or using a potato masher, mash the strawberries. Set aside.
With a peeler, remove the rind of the lemons. Try to only remove the rind and not the white pith. Julienne the peels.
In a small pan, bring water to a boil. Add julienned peels and cook until soft. Drain the peels and set aside.
Juice the lemons and set juice aside.
In a large stainless steel pot (don’t use aluminum or it’ll burn), add the crushed strawberries, boiled lemon peels and the juice from the lemons. Slowly bring to a boil, then add the salt and sugar.
When the mixture is slightly reduced, add the pectin. Bring the mixture to a boil again, stirring constantly.
Dip a spoon in the mixture, then run a finger through what’s coating the back of the spoon. If the jam holds a line, it’s done.
Cool appropriately and place into a container. This jam will last about five days in the refrigerator.