Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
With so many places to eat on Solano Avenue, it’s easy to miss Enoteca Mediterraneo. Open just over a year, the Berkeley café is a charming spot to stop for a bite and glass of wine. And, it must be said, a big part of that charm is the owner himself. Jamshied Basseri’s Persian Jewish background means he takes the culture of hospitality seriously — always with a smile.
A veteran of the Bay Area’s food and wine scene, Basseri said his love of food and cooking was nurtured by his mother, whom he helped in the kitchen from a young age. In fact, one of his earliest memories is throwing a fit when he had to start kindergarten because he wanted to stay in the kitchen with his mom instead.
“I would also go shopping with her, and she’d explain to me why this tomato and not that one, about the ripeness and color and texture,” he said. She started him on age-appropriate tasks like cleaning parsley, and as he got older, he graduated to chopping onions or grinding meat.
He remembers helping her make tomato paste, as well as jam and fruit syrups in the summertime to use throughout the winter.
Basseri left his native Iran in 1966 in pursuit of an education. Arriving already fluent in English, he got a job as a waiter at a Manhattan Howard Johnsons on Broadway, smack in the middle of Times Square. In 1968 he came to the Bay Area, where he studied mechanical engineering at San Francisco State and had an office job for a year before he quit.
“My family thought I was meshuggeh,” he said (even though Persian Jews do not speak Yiddish, everyone knows the word for crazy).
“I had a corner office to myself and had to wear a suit and tie, and there was no one around but me, and I had to push paper and crunch numbers all day. I thought, I don’t want to do this, this drives me nuts.”
He knew he was destined for a life in food. Longtime locals might remember him from his Saffron Gourmet shop that he ran 10 years ago in Albany, or going even further back, the Berkeley restaurant Cornucopian. One of his early jobs in the East Bay was working for Narsai David’s catering business.
He’s only been back to visit his homeland once, in 1975, but he still reminisces about the Iran he left behind.
Despite American attitudes toward the Iranian regime, he remains incredibly proud of his Persian Jewish heritage, and in fact was planning to visit the country several years ago to research a cookbook of Jewish and local recipes from his home city of Kermanshah — but then Donald Trump was elected president and instituted the travel ban.
My family thought I was meshuggeh.
He still hopes to visit Iran and write that cookbook someday, hopefully sooner rather than later.
“I am waiting for the orange swine to leave the White House,” he said. “He blew up my plans.”
In the meantime, he is running his café, which specializes in dishes from throughout the Mediterranean. Basseri notes that Middle Eastern food has a wide range of dishes beyond hummus and falafel. Take for example fesenjan, a hallmark of Persian cuisine. Rather than whole pieces of chicken, he uses boneless chunks, cooking them until tender in a tangy sauce made up of pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts, served over a mound of yellow rice. That is just one dish that rotates on the menu. Basseri also makes a Moroccan tagine-like stew with preserved lemons and green olives. Another has sour cherries, a staple ingredient in Syria. He is also perfecting his gondi, the Persian equivalent of matzah ball soup, in which ground chicken is combined with chickpea flour to make dumplings for chicken soup. He also makes an Iraqi version of borscht (his grandmother is from Baghdad). He hopes to continue offering other Jewish dishes from throughout the Arab world and expand people’s conceptions of Jewish food.
Basseri’s gyros are a popular lunchtime favorite; a vegan variety is made with hummus and baba ghanoush, and the fesenjan version has ground beef and lamb meatballs. He spent years as a chef in the natural food sector, so he’s well-versed in vegan cooking. He prides himself on having much more interesting options than most traditional menus. When we spoke recently, he was excited to cater a vegan dinner for 30 in the coming weeks.
A popular soup on the menu right now is his own creation: kabocha squash with coconut milk and cardamom. Even though coconut milk is not traditional in Middle Eastern cuisine, the soup is rich and fragrant, perfect on a cold winter’s day.
Since opening, Basseri has made many of his products and ingredients available for sale at his café. Guests who are inspired by his flavors and want to try them at home can pick up Middle Eastern pantry staples like pomegranate molasses and chickpea flour, while house-made soups and salads are in the refrigerated section. A sizable area of the freezer is devoted to Golnazar, a popular brand of Persian ice cream, as well as ice cream cakes (a favorite flavor: saffron pistachio).
Basseri also sells wine by the bottle (and by the glass in the café). “I sold wine for 18 years, so I know a couple things about wine,” he said. “My personal preference is older red wines. I have connections and knowledge where to get good deals.” He carries wines from California, France and Italy, ranging from $10 to $30 a bottle. If he has an open bottle, he might offer customers a sample before buying.
At 70, Basseri gets asked with some frequency why a man of his age isn’t retired by now.
“If you have a place you really love, and it comes from your heart, then it’s not work anymore, it’s fun,” he said. “My payment is the smiles people give me. I believe in the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy. What am I going to do, sit around the house and croak? I am one of those people who can’t sit still, and I still love what I’m doing.”