For 12 years, Saha was housed in the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco, a boutique hotel in the Tenderloin, where it was fairly well hidden except to those who knew the talented chef, Mohamed Aboghanem, a native of Yemen (Watch Saha featured on Check, Please! Bay Area in 2011). Now his fans have to drive across the bridge to Berkeley, where Saha has reimagined itself—right on Berkeley’s main drag, Shattuck Avenue, in the beautiful Art Deco-style Berkeley Fine Arts Building at the corner of Haste Street. The East Bay has welcomed Saha as Oakland’s hot restaurant scene trickles over to now-booming Berkeley.
The expansive menu covers weekend brunch, lunch and dinner with variations on the theme of classic Middle Eastern dishes. We stopped in for a weekday lunch and were impressed with every aspect of the operation, from the careful, exciting cooking to the gracious service and elegant, but relaxing, space.
Many have called Aboghanem’s cooking Middle Eastern “fusion,” but I experience it more as classic, i.e., grounded in Arabic traditions, with local flourishes in both ingredients and techniques, including many interpretations of recipes that are gluten-free and vegan, such as the Yemeni fouel (sometimes spelled “foul” and pronounced like “fool”) we started with, the centerpiece of which is dried fava beans. The deep, earthy beans are stewed with tomato, onion, garlic, cumin and za’atar, then coarsely blended and served with pita baked daily for the restaurant by Aroma’s Hamati Bakery in San Bruno.
Because the lunch menu is heavy on sandwiches, we tried three different kinds: the falafel pita, the kofta (minced lamb) burger, and the wild salmon burger, all of which were spot-on.
The falafel (vegan) was a generous portion of crisply fried falafel served in chewy, absorbent pita with hummus, tahini, big chunks of cucumber and tomato and minced parsley and mint. The rich hummus and tahini covered every inch of the filling, so that there were no dry bites. Ask for the very spicy homemade harissa on the side.
The kofta was made from ground Niman Ranch lamb, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, slathered in harissa aioli and puréed avocado on a sesame-seed bun, reminiscent of an American drive-in burger with secret sauce, only with much better meat. Arugula and sliced tomatoes were tucked underneath the lamb.
But the crowning glory was the salmon burger, made from wild-caught fish, chopped coarsely and mixed with herbs and, somehow, miraculously cooked to medium-rare. So, you get a burger (rather than filet) texture, but the fish isn’t overcooked. Toppings, in addition to arugula and tomato, were roasted peppers, pickled red onions and garlic aioli. This is a lunch I’ll be back for, again and again.