Israel in Berkeley Sauls new chef is spicing things up

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Patrons of Saul’s Delicatessen coming in for their fix of pastrami and matzah ball soup may have noticed something different lately at the Berkeley eatery: a lot more Mediterranean influences and Hebrew words on the menu.

Challah French toast with halvah date sauce. Malawach, which is a Yemeni pancake. Zatar chicken served with honey dates and tahini. And that’s just a sampling.

That’s because after spending her first six months there learning everything there is to know about Saul’s, Elisheva Isaac, the Israeli chef de cuisine, is adding her own Sephardic flair to the restaurant. She is the first Israeli chef to ever work at the 25-year-old Jewish delicatessen.

But the old favorites are still there, too. The last thing Isaac wants to do is “freak anyone out with too much Hebrew.  I’m trying to be very gentle with the Hebrew on the menu. I’m trying to find the balance between things they know and things they don’t.”

Elisheva Isaac seasons her “Friday Night Roast Chicken.”

Isaac, from Ashkelon, is Ashkenazi on her father’s side (a mix of Hungarian, French and Polish) and Sephardic on her mother’s side (of Libyan descent). While her father — “the fries and schnitzel guy,” she called him — did most of the weeknight cooking in her home, the Sabbath meals were left to her mother. She was raised in a traditional home, and still keeps kosher.

Isaac, who is petite, blonde and has a tiny stud in her nose, always loved cooking, but did everything from teaching preschool to designing weddings before she came to the Bay Area. She’s been back in California for six years, having spent the first seven years of her life in Los Angeles before moving to Israel with her family.

After a few years managing the San Francisco store of Israeli jewelry designer Michal Negrin, she entered the California Culinary Academy’s Le Cordon Bleu program in San Francisco. After working at the highly regarded Citizen Cake, which closed in December, she found an ad for Saul’s on Craigslist and applied.

Although she was living only blocks away, she had never been inside.

Why not? “I’m a good cook” she said, “and I knew I’d just compare it to what I make at home. I like to eat at restaurants that make food I don’t make myself.”

But since she keeps kosher, that can be awfully limiting — including the food that she has to prepare at work. Isaac makes a distinction between tasting non-kosher food for her job, and regularly eating non-kosher food. At Saul’s, she tastes the dishes she creates, but she doesn’t swallow the food.

And while there are dishes on the menu that mix meat and dairy, Isaac won’t do that if she doesn’t have to.

“I’ll use shmaltz for gravy rather than butter. It makes the flavor even better,” she said. “If there’s no reason, I won’t do it, but if you can’t live without it, I will.”

Another example she gave was for a meatball dish. Most Italian restaurants soak the bread in milk, then squeeze out the milk and add the damp bread to give the meatballs texture. “I found it doesn’t add enough flavor to justify doing it, so I soak challah in water. When you’re squeezing the liquid out, it’s such a small amount anyway.”

Isaac looks at her parents’ marriage — the merging of Ashkenazi and Sephardic — as a metaphor for how she likes her food. Her brisket, for example, is a traditional Ashkenazi dish until she cooks it in Ras al-Hanout, a Moroccan blend that usually is made from spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and chili peppers.

“I think Jewish cuisine is amazing,” she said. “And people from Israel have great palates because we were exposed to such a variety of cuisines, not in restaurants, but in people’s homes.”

One of Isaac’s most popular items on the menu over the past few months has been the Malawach, a Yemeni pancake that comes with a tomatoes, z’hug (a hot green spice paste) and labne (a Middle Eastern yogurt cheese). In the morning it comes with a poached egg, and at dinner adding shwarma is an option.

She’s also been serving an egg brik, a huge kreplach filled with two fried eggs and served with zhoug and harissa sauce; shakshouka, baked egg in a spicy cumin tomato sauce with spices; lamb meatballs in tomato sauce with various spices; and, for dessert, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) with fruit sauce.

“I cook with my heart first,” Isaac said. “One of my dreams is to introduce Jewish food as ‘something different but good cuisine’ to the world, to bring the flavors and my knowledge to people’s plates, and so far, Saul’s is a nice home for my passion.”

Peter Levitt, co-owner and executive chef of Saul’s, and a Chez Panisse alum, has always taken inspiration from Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Spanish, and Northern African Jewish traditions — and this is not the first time Saul’s has served Sephardic dishes. But he still loves having Isaac on the team.

“A chef of Israeli background brings a much deeper and broader perspective to the Jewish eatery than a chef with the New York deli perspective,” Levitt said. “Elisheva is religious and respects the Sabbath, which brings a very authentic Jewish voice to the kitchen at Saul’s.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."