First he greets you with a cup of Persian cardamom tea. Then Jamshied Basseri lays down a platter of dolma, eggplant, beet salad, hummus and pita. “It’s only an appetizer,” he says. “I warn you.”
True to his word, Basseri then prepares a plate of mujedra (an Arab pilaf), sun-dried tomato couscous and vegetable stew. It’s so delicious that the only correct response is a coo of contentment.
But Basseri can’t sit and chat. A stream of customers continually strolls into his Albany store, Saffron Gourmet market and deli. They must be attended to, which the red-aproned merchant does with courtly aplomb.
“Hello, Jamshied,” cries a young blind woman and her blind boyfriend, passing by the market. They live next door and know Basseri well.
“I call them Romeo and Juliet,” he says with a smile.
Basseri opened Saffron two years ago. It’s west of San Pablo Avenue, which puts it off the beaten track of Solano Avenue’s gourmet gulch farther east. But for loyal customers, it’s worth the trek.
Saffron’s shelves sag under the weight of tempting foodstuffs. The spice rack features imported hibiscus, fenugreek, sumac and Chinese cinnamon sticks the size of baseball bats.
Israeli candy bars, tins of Portuguese sardines and Persian cold wax hair remover jostle for shelf space. A pair of samovars warm on the counter; a massive jar of garlic cloves — marinating in red wine vinegar for the past two years — rests near the wine racks.
A poster for the Arab Film Festival adorns one wall, while the front window displays a bumper sticker for Barack Obama in Hebrew letters. Greek music plays on the boom box, but tomorrow it could be Persian pop or Israeli rock.
“I wanted to do something unique,” Basseri says of his store and his tendency to fuss over customers. “It’s part of my culture to welcome people.”
Basseri attributes that need to meet, greet and feed to his Jewish and Persian heritage. “In Iran it’s worse,” he adds. “If you don’t eat, they’re insulted.”
Though he’s been in the United States since 1968, the bespectacled Basseri retains his Farsi accent. He also speaks perfect English and French.
He was born in Kermanshah, Iran, near the Iraqi border. His mother got her son cooking at an early age, having him help chop vegetables and learn the art of Persian Jewish cuisine.
But it was no idyllic childhood. Local Muslim children routinely picked on Basseri for being Jewish.
“They would beat us up,” he recalls. “So we Jewish kids would travel in packs, but often their packs were bigger than our packs.”
By age 17, he’d had enough, and before finishing high school, Basseri left for New York City on his own. Using his wits and talents, he rose from being a waiter at Howard Johnson’s to chef at Manhattan’s Terrace in the Park.
He later moved to the Bay Area, where he attended San Francisco State University and started a family (his children attended Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito). To get his culinary career off the ground, Basseri worked for local food critic Narsai David, and later opened a catering business and a Berkeley restaurant, Cornucopian.
“Oh, you have to taste this,” Basseri says, spooning out homemade fessenjom, a Persian marinade made of pomegranate juice, walnuts and spices. It’s a perfect complement to the pilaf.
Many of his customers are Iranian ex-pats like himself, hungry for a taste of home. Not all of them are Jewish, and Basseri can occasionally sense from some of them the old prejudices. But, he notes, “I am a very proud Jew. I say that to everybody.”
The sun is setting and a light wind blows through Saffron’s open windows. Basseri has yet to take down his sukkah, its fronds faded to brown. Maybe tomorrow he’ll get to that, but right now it’s closing time.
Basseri will be back early the next morning to prepare more stuffed peppers and roasted chicken. And his customers will be back, greeted as always like family and welcomed with a cup of tea.
Says Basseri, “When people tell me it must cost money [to hand out free tea], I say, ‘You must not be Persian or Jewish.'”
Saffron Gourmet is located at 1007 Solano Ave. in Albany. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Information: (510) 528-8282.