Since moving from a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley in October 2016, Saha has gained a steady group of regulars.
“Once people try our food, they usually come back,” chef-owner Mohamed Aboghanem said proudly.
Saha, which means “to your health,” in Arabic, first gained high praise during its 12-year-run at the Hotel Carlton on Sutter Street. Diners loved Aboghanem’s interpretations of what he calls “Arabic fusion” cuisine. But when he saw the vacant Herbivore location in Berkeley, and his friend who owned it was wanting to retire, Aboghanem thought he could realize a dream.
“I don’t want to spend another 10 years at the Carlton,” he thought. “I still wanted to work another 10 years, but in the restaurant of my dreams. I saw the open space and the building from the outside, and could see my dream restaurant.”
And make it into his dream restaurant he did. A column in the center of the open kitchen space has a tribute to his mother, written in Arabic. She died shortly before Saha’s Berkeley debut.
Numerous chef friends warned him that the new space was far from ideal — it was too big, the location a bit far away from everything, that Berkeley is different than San Francisco, and especially that people in Berkeley won’t drink as much, a critical piece in how restaurants earn revenue.
“I was in love with this space and didn’t listen to anybody,” he said.
But in the ever-changing East Bay restaurant scene, location matters. Saha is a few blocks south of the busier area of Shattuck, where people might go to dinner before or after a movie or a play at Berkeley Rep. When it first opened, Saha received excellent reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Edible East Bay and the Mercury News. When the reviews were first published, the restaurant was always busy at night, but lunch “never worked,” nor did brunch. “I was doing a triple shift sometimes,” he said. “It was really hard.” But in the past year, media attention has dropped and so has business. It’s serious enough that Aboghanem decided to return to his former space at the Hotel Carlton.
After the San Francisco Saha closed, a restaurant called Phlox Commons opened in its place. When Phlox recently closed, Aboghanem took back the space, where he will open a wine bar serving small plates. He plans to open Saha Lounge: Tapas & Wine Bar in a few months.
This is not to say that the Berkeley location is closing — far from it — but it does mean the Yemeni-born chef will be commuting back and forth between the two restaurants. Aboghanem is originally from Sana’a. Due to the civil war in Yemen that broke out in 2015, he hasn’t been back in four years.
“You can’t go right now, it’s divided. While you can fly into the south, to get to the north you have to cross 500 checkpoints. My dad passed away last year, and I really wanted to go. It’s heartbreaking that you can’t, you could be killed before you get there.”
Aboghanem came to the U.S. as a young man, at a time when America was much friendlier toward Yemeni immigrants. He has been here 30 years and says he’s never experienced any kind of anti-Arab racism or Islamaphobia.
“Even when my then-wife and I drove across the country,” he said.
And even now, under the current administration, which includes Yemen on its list of eight countries whose citizens are forbidden to enter the U.S., Aboghanem feels welcome.
Aboghanem had loved cooking with his mom as a child, in a culture where men generally stayed out of the kitchen. When he arrived here, he attended Laney College while working at a Greek deli. He excelled as a cook and was told by a mentor that he should think about a future in food. While he left Laney to enroll in the California Culinary Academy, he quit cooking school after a few months.
When he first opened Saha in the city, he had to convince Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the group managing the Carlton, to take a chance on upscale Arabic food. Mediterranean food can often suffer from the same phenomenon as many cuisines considered “ethnic.” People are used to seeing hummus and gyro sandwiches for very cheap prices, and have a hard time imagining food from these regions using premium ingredients, elevated in dishes served in a fine dining atmosphere. Which is exactly what Saha’s food is.
Aboghanem’s food is incredibly creative. While Middle Eastern food lovers will find familiar items like kofta and baba ghanoush on his menu, there are many more dishes that people haven’t seen, like his signature vegan offering, a mushroom ravioli in a mango coconut lemongrass sauce that almost, but not quite, takes it in a Thai direction. Lemongrass is commonly used in southern Yemen, he said, adding that he would cause a revolt if he ever took this dish off the menu.
His salmon baklava is another showstopper, in which a generous piece of wild salmon is cooked inside phyllo dough, with small bits of traditional baklava filling — honey, rosewater and nuts — to give just a touch of sweetness. Served alongside an olive tapenade with a slight drizzle of a lemon-honey sauce on the plate, it is a beautiful combination of savory, salty and slightly sweet.
Aboghanem started a prix fixe menu during Berkeley’s Restaurant Week, which he has kept and is always available. For $40 for vegetarian or $45 for meat and/or seafood, diners can get a three-course dinner, with a soup or salad, an appetizer and a main course. This is an excellent way to try the food at Saha, especially since the prix fixe isn’t limited to a few items; the entire menu is on offer at this price.
A wine list put together by his ex-wife and business partner, Marmee Manack, features reasonably priced selections mostly from California and Europe, many of which are organic or biodynamic.
Aboghanem has been on the special diet train from the beginning. Both vegans and gluten-free diners have sought him out for his inventive dishes in these categories. A wild mushroom knaffe, for example, has the mushrooms and vegan cream cheese baked in shredded phyllo, served over a coconut chipotle chermoula sauce (Chermoula is a North African sauce with both fresh and dried herbs, in a base of cilantro, lemon and garlic.). A non-vegan version includes lobster.
Yemeni food features a lot of seafood, with Yemen bordering both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and Saha’s menu reflects this.
While Yemeni food is still not well-known in this country, Aboghanem includes both helba, the national dish, a meat stew almost like a gumbo, with okra, potatoes and vegetables in a fenugreek broth (“90% of people love this dish, but 10% find it too bitter,” he said) and a curried lamb that he learned from his mother, who learned it from a neighbor from the south.
A lamb shoulder or shank is roasted for three hours and is topped with a coconut milk curry with garlic, ginger and turmeric. It’s then served with golden saffron rice. While Aboghanem can’t return home now for the foreseeable future, this is the dish that, for him, summons memories of his parents and home.
Saha is open 5:30–10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.