Sabra Grill reopens, serving kosher Mideast fare in S.F.

Just inside the main entrance to San Francisco's Chinatown, a maroon awning sets off a newly carpeted stairway leading to the Sabra Grill Restaurant.

Up the stairs on Grant Avenue, the second-floor dining room has been extended with 10 additional tables. Posters of the Holy Land and Middle Eastern paraphernalia decorate the freshly painted white walls.

After two months of remodeling and renovation, Sabra reopened in May — allaying the fears of those in the community who thought the kosher restaurant had permanently shut its doors.

Chabad of S.F. is back to frequenting Sabra almost every day, using the restaurant as the location for evening prayers.

"We had a demand for a downtown meeting space," says Chabad member Yishai Winer. "It's also a convenient way to get a bite to eat. The food is great, and Sabra validates and participates in the highest kosher standards."

At closing time for the grill, the Israeli music normally piped through the room has been silenced for the night; all 50 tables are deserted.

Neal Wohlmuth, a mashgiach, or kosher food inspector, scrupulously examines the restaurant's recently renovated kitchen. He locks the refrigerator and stove doors.

"If the mashgiach doesn't show up for work in the morning, no one will be eating," says Sabra owner and cook Yuval Mizrahi, explaining that only Wohlmuth and one other mashgiach have keys to the kitchen appliances.

"Sabra is the only kosher restaurant in San Francisco with a mashgiach on the premises," Mizrahi boasts. He pays the kashrut experts an hourly wage to "make sure all the food passes the kosher test."

"He is a messenger for the rabbis," says the Israeli-born restaurateur. "When a rabbi or a religious person comes in, he wants a representative he can count on."

A customer also wants good food, and Sabra's menu of glatt kosher food offers everything from shwarma to falafel, baklava to fava beans.

"It's all fresh and prepared by us," says Mizrahi, an Israeli-trained cook. He said a dining experience at Sabra would eradicate any preconceived notion that kosher food is bland.

"It's in the spices," he reveals.

"Once in awhile, when my fiancée, Sigi, gets in the mood, she comes in and makes Mediterranean specials," adds Mizrahi, praising a fish dish spiced with cumin, onion, dill and mushroom, and topped with tomato sauce.

Mizrahi first came to the United States in the early 1980s to visit his uncle, Eitan Hileli. He didn't plan to open a restaurant, or even to stay in the United States.

But when Mizrahi's uncle proposed the idea of a kosher restaurant, the self-described "hot-blooded" Israeli jumped at the chance.

"When an opportunity arises, you take it," says Mizrahi.

He first entered the restaurant business at the age of 20, working in his family's pub on the beach of Tel Aviv. Mizrahi and Hileli teamed up to open Sabra in May 1996. And the rest is history.

Mizrahi praises Sabra's location, noting its reciprocal advantages.

"Kosher people who are traveling have a hard time finding places to eat," he says. "When they come into the city and see our restaurant they get very excited. It makes them feel like they're at home."

As for the restaurant's kosher standards, six rabbis signed Sabra's framed certificate of kosher compliance — rather than the one required.

Also, an authorized rabbi comes in once a month, as required by kashrut law, to survey the scene and confirm that everything is running properly.

"I figure, if you're going to do something, you may as well do it perfectly," says Mizrahi. "That's why I have a mashgiach; that's why I have six signatures rather than one.

"It's more for the community than anyone else."