A family-size chicken shawarma meal from Lev, a new Middle Eastern food project from the guys behind Wise Sons. (Photo/Courtesy Wise Sons)
A family-size chicken shawarma meal from Lev, a new Middle Eastern food project from the guys behind Wise Sons. (Photo/Courtesy Wise Sons)

Wise Sons goes Middle Eastern; Saul’s Deli owners give it another go; ‘Yiddishe’ happy hour

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

In March, Saul’s Restaurant and Jewish Delicatessen co-owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman had sold their restaurant after more than 30 years and were looking forward to retirement. But when the sale fell through because of the pandemic, they closed their doors and took some time to reassess. Now they have decided to regroup and invest in Saul’s future.

Construction is underway for a takeout window and improvements inside, including a new floor and counter where customers eventually will sit. They hope to reopen for takeout and delivery in July with a smaller menu and, like everyone, are waiting to make any further decisions until the city of Berkeley issues its rules on reopening.

The decision to invest in Saul’s was not an easy one, in light of the fact that 30 to 40 percent of restaurants won’t survive the economic side of the pandemic, Levitt said.

They based their decision on the fact that Saul’s was doing some of its best business right before the pandemic hit, and that Jewish food is experiencing a resurgence of interest. They also believe that, while rough times are still ahead, eventually things will return to normal.

“Obviously a lot of people think restaurants are worth nothing today, and they’re right — temporarily,” Levitt said. “Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but hopefully within a year there will be a vaccine, and six months after that there will be a repeat of the Roaring ’20s, as people will be desperate to go out to eat.”

Something else new they’re planning: bagels made on-site. For many years they’ve been carrying Baron Bagels, made by Dan Graf, and now they are working with him to boil and bake the bagels at Saul’s when it fully reopens.

“We think that would be a neat addition for early morning,” Levitt said.

Latke Tent event at Saul's Deli in Berkeley, 2016 (Photo/File)
Latke Tent event at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, 2016 (Photo/File)

As much as Evan Bloom loves pastrami, he can’t eat it every day. And listening to his customers over the years, he knows he’s not alone.

That’s why the co-founder of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen has decided to add Middle Eastern food to the offerings, until recently a catering-only option.

“This, I can eat every day,” he said.

Called Lev (“heart” in Hebrew), the special menu actually was introduced a few years ago. Wise Sons was catering at the offices of Square, the payment platform, and workers asked for some lighter, healthier fare. The menu was a success, and last fall it was added to the general catering menu. Now, it’s available for delivery on Caviar and DoorDash, as well.

The Lev menu, which is separate from the deli menu, has just two proteins: a chicken shwarma and a kofta made from Impossible Burger. Both can be served over turmeric rice, in a salad with za’atar lemon dressing or in a whole-grain flatbread. Fries come with two dipping sauces, a harissa and herby yogurt, and there are tahini chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Everything can be ordered individually or in family-size meals for four, which also come with black tea and pomegranate lemonade.

Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen co-founder Evan Bloom at Wise Sons' bagel shop in the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur. (Photo/Maren Caruso)
Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen co-founder Evan Bloom at Wise Sons’ bagel shop in the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur. (Photo/Maren Caruso)

Bloom said the desire for this type of food was often expressed by customers, who saw no reason a Jewish restaurant couldn’t offer Middle Eastern food, too.

Healthy cuisine isn’t exactly the theme at Wise Sons, where the standard Ashkenazi deli fare includes pastrami cheese fries and a “Big Macher” burger. That doesn’t always fit the bill.

“We do a lot of catering, especially at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and there’s a limit to what we can offer on the Ashkenazi side,” said Bloom. “People aren’t accustomed to brisket and latkes at a happy hour.”

While executing the Lev menu doesn’t require a Middle Eastern chef, it doesn’t hurt that Wise Sons’ head of culinary operations for the past seven years is Israeli American chef Joey Boujo, someone Bloom grew up with.

Bloom said right now he is trying to strike a balance between expanding menu offerings based on customer demand, and keeping the staff employed.

“It’s a tenuous time, and we’re open because our people want to work and we want to serve people, and we feel we can do it safely as well,” Bloom said. However, “we’re not making money. We’ve reduced as many costs as we can, but we’re just trying to keep going. Having to restart what we’ve built in however many months would be a real challenge.”

Inspired by last month’s online “Great Big Jewish Food Fest,” local chef Shelley Handler decided to host her own online happy hour. She called the one-time event “Meine Yiddishe Madeleine” and asked participants to share their own memories of Jewish foods that are comparable to Proust’s madeleine nostalgia in “Remembrance of Things Past.”

“Which dish, smell, taste or tradition binds you most vividly to your sense of being a Jew?” she asked. “Whether you’re observant, secular, or merely gastronomic, how does this specific food, meal or sense memory make you one of the tribe?”

Handler was the inaugural chef at the Chez Panisse Café and is a veteran in the food business. She was joined by friends, colleagues and culinary professionals, such as Harvey Steiman, editor emeritus of Wine Spectator, who spoke of finding a blintz just like his mother’s at Barney Greengrass, and Jesse Cool, chef at Menlo Park’s Flea Street, whose father was a butcher.

“We ate tongue and sweetbreads and liver and every part of the animal, and until I went out into the world, I thought this was normal,” said Cool.

For Handler, her answer was the smell of onions frying.

“It’s one of the most evocative smells for me,” she said. “It’s a particular smell that sends me right into my grandmother’s kitchen.”

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."