Kosher Cafe Olam gives customers taste of Judaism

Daryl Ross didn't open a kosher cafe inside U.C. Berkeley Hillel as a get-rich-quick scheme.

"I would classify it as a mitzvah," said Ross, owner of the nearly year-old Cafe Olam.

"It felt important to offer kosher food and do things that would be good for young people who, for the first time, are becoming associated with their culture."

A 35-year-old Cal alumni, Ross also owns the popular off-campus hangout Cafe Strada a block away from Hillel, as well as Cafe Zeb inside the university's law school.

Ross does not keep kosher himself. But before leasing the space for Cafe Olam, he'd been aware that few places in the East Bay offered kosher food, especially vegetarian-dairy meals.

"I've always wanted more of a connection to the Jewish community. My expertise is cafes, and by providing this cafe, it's the best way to do something. By making it kosher, I made it all-inclusive to the community," said Ross, a Menlo Park resident and member of the Conservative Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

The concept behind Olam, Hebrew for "world," is to represent the planet's varied cuisine, decor and clientele inside a 150-seat cafe and espresso bar.

Chef-manager Amanda Fisher's specialties include Turkish borekas and an Asian-influenced stuffed acorn-squash with peanut sauce. The menu also offers daily specials of pizza, salads, sandwiches and soups. Pastries include rugelach and Egyptian baklava.

Prices range from $1.75 for an aram sandwich or specialty pizza slice to $4.95 for a Baltic pickled salmon salad or a Moroccan couscous with pumpkin, garbanzos, raisins, onions and almonds.

The eatery's wall encompasses an abstract gold-blue mural of the continents and the seas. The bistro table tops, designed by Ross, display shellac-coated torn pieces of maps. There's also a wall of clocks, each posting the time in a city across the globe.

In addition, the cafe occasionally books performers, such as klezmer musicians, to entertain the lunch crowd. A collection of international board games is available, including Scrabble in Italian and Monopoly in Hebrew.

When he opened the cafe, Ross hoped to draw a diverse crowd. He believes he has succeeded. Most customers are Jewish students, ranging from secular to Orthodox. But the cafe also attracts Berkeley-area Jews seeking kosher food, as well as non-Jews.

"We get students who have never wandered into Hillel in their lives, but they come in because they like the smell of our pizza," Ross said. "Seeing the mix makes me feel like we've completed our mission."

The restaurant opens at 7:30 a.m. Mondays through Fridays. It shuts its doors at 4:30 p.m., except on Fridays when it closes two hours earlier.

As of yesterday, Thursday's hours have been extended to 11 p.m.

With the later hours one night a week, Ross said, he plans to offer more cultural events, like music, poetry reading and art displays representing different kinds of Jewish culture.

Starting in October, he also plans to begin a monthly Thursday dinner featuring a local guest chef. He will donate the proceeds to various Jewish charities.

With the slogan "feed the body eclectic," the eatery is purposely trying to offer diverse Jewish cuisine.

Ross consulted with Zillah Bahar, an East Bay cookbook author and Bulletin columnist, to research Jewish dishes from such countries as Italy, Morocco, Asia, Turkey and Egypt.

"I wanted students at Berkeley to see that there are neat things about the Jewish community they may not know about," Ross said. "And we can demonstrate it through food."

The Berkeley-based Vaad Hakashrus provides the kosher supervision.

"Rather than have typical Jewish deli food, like mother's chicken soup, we thought it would be more interesting to open a place that really celebrates the cultural variety of the Jewish community," Ross said.

In the future, Ross plans to retail challah loaves.

Ironically, when Ross was a student at U.C. Berkeley 15 years ago, he wouldn't step foot into Hillel.

"At the time, it had nothing to offer me. I was like a lot of disenfranchised students who didn't want to be connected to their Judaism. I was intimidated by the depth and vastness of Jewish culture and history, not to mention the religion," he said.

"What turned me off about Hillel was I didn't know where to start. By having a cafe in Hillel, that in itself makes it accessible and more social. Everyone can relate to a cafe. They can experience the ethnic cuisine and be exposed to a facet of Jewish culture they might not have known about."

Ross, who wants his customers to linger, takes that philosophy to an extreme at Olam.

"I want them to nurse their coffee, hang out and kibitz," he said.

Right now, Ross is still trying to build Cafe Olam's customer base. In the end, he not only hopes to succeed here, but he also envisions opening branches of Cafe Olam at Hillels across the world.

"They would be like a network, have a circuit of performers and be connected through the Internet," he said. "I would love it if they were all nonprofits, could be a source of revenue for Hillel and could enhance Hillel's mission of allowing Jewish students to have a Jewish home away from home."