In the 12 years they’ve been running Savoy Events catering, Robert Gott and Mica Talmor-Gott have made whatever food their clients ask for.
“We’re very particular about our sourcing and the quality of our ingredients, and almost everything we make is from scratch, but whether it’s a Singaporean wedding rehearsal dinner, or an Indian wedding banquet or a UC Berkeley graduation, it depends on what the client wants,” said Talmor-Gott.
But with their new restaurant, Ba-Bite, on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, the duo is cooking what they want.
A play on words, Ba-Bite is very close to “Ba-Bayit,” which means “at home” in Talmor-Gott’s native Hebrew. “Here we have the freedom to do whatever we want. When you’re in someone’s home, you eat whatever’s there,” she said.
Talmor-Gott, 41, grew up in northern Israel, in a family where “food is love, food is everything.”
One of her uncles operates a dairy farm, and her grandmother still gets up in the morning and gardens, tends to her chicken coop and makes her own cheese.
“Since a big chunk of my family lives on farms, we always had beautiful produce all the time,” she said. “When it was eggplant season, we’d make three different eggplant dishes.”
After serving in the Israeli army as a computer operator and technician — “people called me and yelled at me with their computer problems,” she said — Talmor-Gott attended culinary school in Israel, and worked in a few high-end Tel Aviv restaurants.
But she quickly found her options limited, as “Israeli restaurant kitchens were not so female-friendly in those days.”
Gott, 37, is from Bend, Oregon, and spent his high school years working at a bakery before and after school.
Their paths collided in 1998 at culinary school. Talmor-Gott decided she loved working with pastry in Israel and came to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy’s Baking and Pastry Program, which Gott also attended.
They decided to marry after dating five or six weeks, as Talmor-Gott’s visa was going to expire, and she would have had to leave the country.
“We didn’t think it through,” said Gott. “We wanted to give it a chance, and the only way to do that was to get married. Neither of us thought it was such a big deal.”
Seventeen years later, they’re still married and running a business together, so clearly it’s working.
(Incidentally, Talmor-Gott’s maternal grandparents got married not knowing each other at all, because a visa for a couple was easier to procure than those for single people to escape Hungary in the late 1930s. They, too, stayed married.)
In the early years of their marriage, Talmor-Gott worked as a pastry chef at several restaurants, among them San Francisco’s Eos and Oakland’s Grasshopper (both now closed). Gott worked in area bakeries until he got what’s known as “white lung,” which is caused by breathing in too much flour. He realized he had to make a change.
Meanwhile, they had done some work for caterers on the side. Talmor-Gott had worked for Ellen Tussman of Savoy Events for only a few days when Tussman told her she was thinking about retirement and wanted the couple to take over her business. They are still running it.
Like their marriage, and like opening Ba-Bite, they didn’t think too much about taking over Savoy. They just did it.
The pair also had hired a lot of staff in the past year to help with a contract with the delivery service Munchery. That contract was coming to an end and they didn’t want to have to let their staff go.
“Even with this restaurant – [Gott] knew the former owner because he taught him how to make pizza dough so when thinking of selling, he called [Gott] first – we recognized an opportunity and just went for it,” said Talmor-Gott. “I can’t say we planned anything in our lives, really.”
Gott corrected her. “We planned our cats,” he said. “We had them and dogs for awhile. With our pets, we do a lot of family planning.”
Which brings us to the present, and more importantly, the food.
Ba-Bite is cheery, with orange, yellow and red walls. The pomegranate is their logo for Savoy Events and it appears in different forms on the walls at Ba-Bite. Food is brought to your table after it is ordered at the counter. It’s BYOB right now as they await their beer and wine license; they’ll have Deschutes Brewery on tap once they get it, in honor of Gott’s Oregon origins. Gott and Talmor-Gott envision the restaurant as a family kind of place.
If you were to eat at the couple’s home, they’d serve a lot of fresh salads. And hummus and falafel, of course. These are all on the menu, but that’s not all.
“Many people see America as the ultimate melting pot of humanity, but Israel is even maybe more so,” said Gott. “There are so many people from so many places in the world in a postage stamp sized country — in a pressure cooker, Talmor Gott adds – that for such a tiny little space, the food’s amazing.”
Talmor-Gott says that given her druthers, she would eat a meal-sized salad every night for dinner, and she has a hard time finding places that make a fully-satisfying one at a good price.
“In so many places, you pay $12 for a salad, and then it’s appetizer size and you’re not full after you eat it,” she said.
There will always be six or seven salads on the menu, and they will change seasonally. Each comes mezze style in small dishes (individually for $4.50 or three for $12) or as a composed dish on a bed of greens with cheese ($8). You can also add falafel balls ($4), spiced chicken kabob ($5), lamb kabob ($6), salmon ($7) or prawns ($7) to the salad.
Right now, the salads include spiced carrots (with golden raisins, cumin, lemon and garlic), beluga lentil with celeriac and hazelnuts (owners of Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty cookbook will recognize that one), red cabbage with dried Mission figs, and Gott’s favorite, cauliflower with green olives, golden raisins, saffron and turmeric. That salad tastes as vibrant as it looks.
There will also always be cucumber and tomato salad on the menu, but diners may not recognize it by its name on the menu: “Shirazi salad.” Many will recognize it as “Israeli salad” or “Palestinian salad,” depending on who you talk to.
“Since they eat the same salad in Iran too, we’re calling it Shirazi, because it sounds good and avoids conflict,” said Talmor-Gott.
There are also five different hummus plates ($8-$13) that come plain or with falafel, whole garbanzo beans, fava bean puree, chicken or lamb. All hummus plates include with house-made pickles, Israeli olives and locally-made pita bread from Hamati in San Bruno.
About that hummus: it’s positively creamy, silky, and almost reminds you that store-bought shouldn’t even be called hummus.
They import their tahini from Nazareth – it’s not organic because they can’t find an organic one they like, nor can they find sesame seeds consistent enough in quality to make it themselves – but their garbanzo beans are organic and local.
“We are very particular about garbanzos since they go in our falafel and hummus,” said Talmor-Gott. “We soak them for two days with a little baking soda and change the water repeatedly since a lot of Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jews have a hard time digesting legumes. I myself won’t dare eat it anywhere else.”
In addition, there will always be hot plates as well that change seasonally; right now there are vegetable ($12) and chicken tagines ($14); a lamb kefta kabob with saffron rice ($16) and the Palestinian dish majadera (lentils and rice with fried onions) with roasted eggplant, roasted zucchini ($12) or seared salmon ($16), all with a yogurt sauce. One Moroccan-born customer has come in seven out of 13 days they have been open for the chicken tagine, Gott noted, so clearly they’re doing something right.
NOSH was given a taste of nearly all the salads, and was won over by their bright flavors. The hummus, as previously mentioned, was divine. The falafel had the perfect crisp exterior while bright green inside and was spiced just right, and the lamb kefta – seasoned beautifully with mint, parsley, onion, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, cumin and coriander – was delicious in its own right, but even more so with a dash of zhug, a vibrant green Yemenite hot sauce.
There are also a few desserts, and their rugulach are not to be missed.
Given the meteoric rise of Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi, and Israeli-American chef Alon Shaya’s recent James Beard award for his Israeli restaurant in New Orleans, Talmor-Gott agreed that Israeli food is finally having its moment.
Noting that the art scene in Tel Aviv blew her away on a recent trip home, Talmor-Gott said, “Conflict creates amazing creativity.”
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