With so many places to eat on Solano Avenue, it’s easy to overlook Enoteca Mediterraneo. Open just over a year, the Albany café is a charming spot to stop for a bite and glass of wine. And, it must be said, that a big part of that charm is the owner himself. With hospitality being a hallmark of Persian culture, it is something that owner Jamshied Basseri takes very seriously.
Basseri has been working in the Bay Area’s food and wine scene for decades, so he knows a thing or two about both.
Basseri’s love of food was nurtured by his mother. As a boy, he showed an interest in helping her cook. In fact, a formative early memory is his throwing a fit when he had to start kindergarten; he made it clear he’d rather be at home with his mother in the kitchen.
She started him on age-appropriate tasks like cleaning parsley, and as he got older, he graduated to chopping onions or grinding meat.
“I would also go shopping with her, and she’d explain to me why this tomato and not that one, about the ripeness and color and texture,” he said. He remembers helping her make tomato paste, as well as jam and fruit syrups in the summertime to use throughout the winter.
Basseri left his native Iran in 1966 in pursuit of an education. Having arrived in New York City speaking fluent English, his first job was as a waiter at the Manhattan Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street and Broadway, smack in the middle of Times Square.
He moved to the Bay Area in 1968, where he studied mechanical engineering at San Francisco State and had an office job for a year before deciding it wasn’t for him.
“My family thought I was meshugeh,” he said, using the Yiddish word for crazy, even though, it should be said, Persian Jews do not speak Yiddish.
“I had a corner office to myself and had to wear a suit and tie, and there was no one around but me, and I had to push paper and crunch numbers all day. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this, this drives me nuts.’”
So Basseri quit the office job; he knew he was destined for a life in food. One of his earliest jobs in the East Bay was working for Narsai David’s catering business. And longtime locals might remember him from his Saffron Gourmet shop that he ran 10 years ago in Albany, or going even further back, his Berkeley restaurant Cornucopian on College Avenue.
He’s only been back to visit his homeland once, in 1975, but he still reminisces about the Iran he left behind.
Despite American attitudes toward his homeland and its regime, he remains incredibly proud of his Persian-Jewish heritage, and in fact, was planning to go back to visit several years ago, to research a cookbook of Jewish and local recipes from his home city of Kermanshah, when Trump was elected, and instituted the travel ban.
He still hopes to go back and write that cookbook someday, hopefully, sooner rather than later.
“I am waiting for the orange swine to leave the White House,” he said. “He blew up my plans.”
So in the meantime, he is running his café, which specializes in a range of dishes from throughout the Mediterranean, with Basseri noting that Middle Eastern food has such a wide range of dishes beyond hummus and falafel.
Take, for example, fesenjan, a hallmark of Persian cuisine. Rather than whole pieces of chicken, he uses boneless chunks, that are cooked until tender in a tangy sauce made up of pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts, and serves it over a mound of yellow rice. That is just one dish that rotates on the menu. But Basseri is not content just to stay within his native Iran. A Moroccan tagine-like stew has preserved lemons and green olives. Another one has sour cherries, a staple ingredient in Syria. He is also perfecting his gondi, the Persian equivalent of matzo ball soup made with ground chicken and chickpea flour dumplings, as well as an Iraqi version of borscht. With his grandmother from Baghdad, Iraq, he hopes to offer other Jewish dishes from throughout the Arab world to expand people’s conceptions of Jewish food.
His gyros are a popular lunchtime favorite, offered with a variety of fillings, from a vegan one with hummus and baba ghanoush to the aforementioned fesenjan and one with ground beef and lamb meatballs.
But Basseri doesn’t just stick to tradition. A popular soup on the menu right now is one of his own creation: kabocha squash with coconut milk and cardamom. Coconut milk is not traditionally used in Middle Eastern cuisine, but it gives the fragrant soup a rich texture; it’s perfect on a cold winter’s day.
Basseri spent years as a chef in the natural food sector, so he’s just as well-versed in vegan cooking; he prides himself on having much more interesting options than the obligatory vegan dish on the menu. When we spoke recently, he was excited to cater a vegan dinner for 30 in the coming weeks.
Since opening Enoteca Mediterraneo, Basseri has installed a refrigerator and freezer case, and has lined the walls with shelves to offer Middle Eastern ingredients for sale, pantry staples like pomegranate molasses and chickpea flour, in case guests are inspired by his flavors and want to try their hand at making similar dishes at home. In the cold section are his house-made soups and salads to go, and in the freezer, a sizable section devoted to Golnazar, a well-known brand of Persian ice cream, ice cream cakes included (a popular flavor: saffron pistachio).
He also sells wine by the bottle, and in the café, by the glass.
“I sold wine for 18 years, so I know a couple things about wine,” he said. “My personal preference is older red wines.” He specializes in vintages that are not as easily available now, from 2011 or 2012.
“I have connections and knowledge where to get good deals,” he said. He carries wines from California, France and Italy, ranging from $10 to $30 a bottle, and given that he also serves wine, he might have a bottle open so you can sample before you buy.
At 70, Basseri gets asked with some frequency why a man his age hasn’t retired by now.
“If you have a place you really love, and it comes from your heart, then it’s not work anymore, it’s fun,” he says. “My payment is the smiles people give me. I believe in the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy; what am I going to do, sit around the house and croak? I am one of those people who can’t sit still, and I still love what I’m doing.”
Enoteca Mediterraneo is open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday. It is closed on Mondays.