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Sandbox Sensations

On Cortland Avenue in the heart of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, a small French-Japanese bakery offers its customers the familiar and something different alongside their morning cup of (locally roasted, individually brewed, single-drip) coffee. At Sandbox Bakery, the usual suspects — fruit-studded scones, cheesy herbed biscuits, flaky sweet and savory croissants, cookies, and sticky morning buns — are beautifully presented in a large glass display case alongside an assortment of soft and airy brioche- and challah-based kashi pan (sweet Japanese filled breads) that nod to chef-owner Mutsumi Takehara’s heritage.

For someone who came to the United States to become a veterinarian (“That didn’t last long,” she says) and ended up taking a baking class for fun, Takehara has come a long way. After learning the basics of French bread and pastry baking in the kitchens of East Bay institutions La Farine and Chez Panisse, Takehara moved on to become the pastry chef at Rubicon and then the Slanted Door, where she worked for 10 years before opening up Sandbox Bakery in December.

The original concept for Sandbox was to create a kid-friendly cafe where moms could hang out, but that idea was scrapped as the business expanded. More and more space became dedicated to the bakery’s kitchen, where Takehara also oversees a wholesale business that provides pastries to several cafes in the city. With no seating inside except for a lone chair in one corner, most of the loitering now happens waiting in line or on one of the two wooden benches outside of the store where urban hipsters, families, and young couples with dogs sit down with their coffee and pastries.

Pans, sweet and savory

All the items in the bakery are made daily in small batches using local and organic ingredients whenever possible. Most pastries range from $2 to $3. Among the more traditional choices for sweet kashi pan is a slightly dense, eggy, pastry-cream-filled cream pan and a traditional red bean paste-stuffed an pan. For something a little more unusual, try the yuzu marmalade and sage pan, which is glazed with a bright, citrusy swath of the bittersweet preserves and garnished with fresh sage leaves.

A selection of freshly baked an pan.The kashi pan also come in several savory varieties.   Negi miso pan is a beautiful braided knot with interior folds that reveal a delicate smear of miso paste and chopped green onions (negi). The corn bechamel pan is just as it sounds: a rich, creamy well of white sauce dotted with sweet corn kernels. The curry pan is not to be missed. Most traditional versions are deep fried, resulting in something that tastes like a curry-filled donut. Takehara’s version is lighter, a baked triangular bun coated in a delicate layer of crispy panko and filled with a generous amount of fragrant Japanese beef curry. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just as the warm buns get pulled off the speed rack.

In addition to the baked goods, sandwiches are available for lunch (after 11 am) in limited quantities. Occasionally, daily specials pop up, including okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and onigiri (rice balls) and, more frequently, some sort of rice burgers using rice patties in lieu of hamburger buns. Be advised: The offerings change daily, so call or stop by to see what Takehara has on the day’s menu.

Four months since Sandbox Bakery opened, business seems to be doing well. The bakery has a strong neighborhood following, and many of the locals stop by and say hi to Takehara, who is around more often than not (she and her husband live upstairs with their two young sons). She has plans to add pizzettas, salads, and even gluten-free dog biscuits to the menu, but it’s the promise of two crusty loaf breads—a demi-baguette and pain de campagne—that has customers buzzing.

As soon as she can get the bread recipes to work consistently in her convection ovens, Takehara says she will extend the bakery’s hours to 6 p.m. (the shop currently closes at 3 p.m.). In the meantime, the biggest winners may be Takehara’s French neighbors, who have volunteered their taste-testing services while she perfects the bread. Just a guess: They won’t be disappointed.

Sandbox Bakery 833 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco,

Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.

Photos of Sandbox Bakery display case (top) and an pan by Sandra Wu.

Zester Daily contributor Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma's corporate headquarters.