Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

They Care a Lot

Sesame and sardines are served with smiles at Saffron Gourmet.

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He is sipping strong ruby-red Persian tea when Jamshied Basseri sets down the tiny cup and dashes out the front door waving a candy bar, calling after the customer who has just bought the bar but left it behind on the counter. We all know how dumb it feels to forget a purchase you've paid for, especially when that purchase is something as ostensibly insignificant as candy. It hardly seems worth going all the way back to the store for, once you've arrived home and discovered it missing. But damn. It was chocolate. And it was an Israeli Elite Pesek Zman Crunchy bar, so you can't replace it at the nearest AM/PM. So when Basseri lopes back into the store without the bar, he looks relieved. Grinning, he picks up his teacup.

"Caught him."

It's the human touch that charms regulars at Saffron Gourmet. It also charms newcomers into becoming regulars. It's the food too, of course, which Basseri first learned to make as a child from his mother in what he still calls Persia: velvety hummus, baba ghanouj-with-a-kick, fat red-pepper-flecked olives, and ambrosial fessenjoon, the intoxicating Persian pomegranate-walnut sauce whose seemingly opposite astringency and elegance play Truth or Dare in your mouth until you squeeze your eyes shut and scream softly with happiness in public. But it's also the easy, authentic banter bouncing back and forth between Jamshied, his brother Bobby, and every customer who bellies up to the counter bearing a basket of sundries plucked from the sun-dappled shelves: Iranian carrot-rosewater jam, say, and Syrian spicy-walnut mouhammara spread, Bosnian coffee, Moroccan sardines, Bulgarian red-pepper lutenika sauce, crisp sesame-speckled Israeli Nish Nosh crackers, Croatian ajvar spread. At the counter, customers order from the deli case. Basseri starts working every morning just after dawn to ensure that the case's contents vary from day to day. A typical afternoon's array includes Persian meatballs; saffron rice; baked green peppers stuffed with rice, herbs, pomegranate sauce, and chicken chunks (the vegetarian version with slivered almonds is sold out); chicken curry; and Moroccan chicken with lemon peel, cumin, and green olives. Spices pinwheel and explode with each mouthful of beet salad — Basseri's own invention, the slyly sweet-sour beets jostling crunchy celery chunks — and of indulgent garlic-dill yogurt dip.

"Oh, this sweet bread," a woman calls from the middle of the shop, waggling a bagged loaf of Armenian gata.

"I know," Bobby affirms from the deli area, where he is neatening a row of baklava as Jamshied hefts a bowl of roast-chicken-studded Russian-style potato salad. Bobby pauses, spatula aloft. "Isn't it — refreshing?" And you know he chose that word after intent deliberation, that he pondered other adjectives but wanted that one.

"Exactly!" the customer chimes, flashing both palms. "For breakfast! With coffee and homemade jam!" Her voice, too, is lit with relief: that fresh eddy merging gratitude and joy.

What is it with this place?

In a corporate culture that has turned the equation want=get into a default setting, we have streamlined the satisfaction of every desire such that it has become anodyne, impersonal, and automatic. And we have so come to expect this, have so obediently sacrificed so much in exchange for instantaneity, that we have forgotten what once was a basic feature of retail. That's the human touch.

It's that folksy how-are-you, will-it-rain-today palaver which we dismiss now as historical fiction, as never having been real. So when it actually happens, right in the middle of your mostly automated day, you hark back to a point at which "Thank you, come again" was not a cartoon platitude. If customers arrive after the brothers have closed their doors for the day and they're still inside, they open the doors again. That's what it is with this place. It comes back to you then, how it used to be when proprietors liked their customers, and — well. Relief.

Then you tuck into your dolmas, whose heavy minty solemnity bears a secret weapon, the sweet spike of pomegranate sauce. Swallowing his first bite, Tuffy smiled like someone who had just joined a club. Gleaming tomato-laced fava beans, each legume arguably packing the protein punch of a small steak, were a sturdy foil for versatile lavash, puffy sesame rings, and half-inch-thick pitas, both baked by the Hamati company in San Bruno. Basseri points out that these pitas bear no resemblance to the thin ones found elsewhere: "Those others," he winces, "have no chew."

The brothers arrived in the United States in 1967 and worked in restaurants while earning engineering degrees at San Jose State and San Francisco State. Moving to Berkeley, Jamshied began cooking and bartending for Narsai David. "That's when I got polished," he says.

He became a caterer, he then owned the Cornucopia restaurant on College Avenue in the late '70s, then became a wine broker. As a chef, he used to shop at the claustrophobic, cramped Middle Eastern grocery that formerly occupied this space just below bustling San Pablo Avenue. After its proprietors pulled up stakes two years ago, Basseri redesigned the place and set up shop. A clearly international clientele includes a large Israeli contingent; Saffron Gourmet's substantial inexpensive wine section (most bottles are under $10) includes the East Bay's largest selection of Israeli varieties — "from small boutique wineries," Basseri says, "where they really care." He also stocks fresh challah on Fridays and prepares special dishes and displays for every Jewish holiday. Last year's Passover charoset, he says, "was a big hit." Not the ubiquitous apple-raisin toss seen on standard American tables, his comprises nuts and dates and "it's really thick — like mortar that would hold two bricks together." A tiny glass "SHALOM" plaque hangs over the bread rack; Israeli pop music pours through the speakers.

Customers drift in and ask for advice on wine pairings. "You're having fish?" Basseri asks. "What kind of sauce will be on it? What else will be on the table?"

Laden with bags, two customers lurch toward the door.

"We've cleaned the place out," one calls back over her shoulder.

The comfort in this comfort food isn't just in the food.

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