Opening a restaurant during a time that many insiders believe is the worst hit to ever befall the restaurant industry requires a certain amount of chutzpah.
Mica Talmor is the first to admit she has it, and then some.
The former chef-owner of the popular Oakland Israeli fast-casual restaurant Ba-Bite – which closed in August 2018 due to a landlord dispute – is back on Piedmont Avenue with Pomella, which is opening today. But given these strange times, Talmor’s new restaurant will not have a splashy grand opening and will operate with limited conditions in accordance with the shelter-in-place mandate. For now, Pomella will offer a small menu of prepared dishes that can be eaten room temperature or easily preheated at home, for curbside pick-up on Thursdays and Fridays between 2-5 p.m., only. (Pomella hopes to add Saturdays in the future.)
“I can’t open the way I wanted to open, but there is a need out there for prepared meals right now and I can fulfill that need,” said Talmor. “I think what we do now will define us, in a way.”
Ba-Bite opened in May 2015 and quickly made its mark with some of the creamiest hummus around. Others loved it for its meal-sized salads, plentiful vegan options and other Middle Eastern favorites like majadera (a spiced rice and lentil dish) and falafel.
Talmor comes from Northern Israel. She worked at high-end restaurants in Tel Aviv, and came to the Bay Area to attend culinary school. Before opening Ba-Bite with her then-husband Robert Gott, the pair owned and ran a high-end catering company called Savoy Events. After the restaurant closed, Talmor continued to cater, serving her roster of clients, until she could figure out what was next for her. But Ba-Bite had developed such a devoted clientele, she knew she had to bring it back somehow.
When the former Chow space became available, she was the second of three tenants to sign a lease (she’s downstairs, next door to the new Doña) but given that a large space for one business was being converted to one housing three different restaurants, changes needed to be made, and that took time.
Talmor ran and completed a Kickstarter campaign in August 2019 seeking $20,000 from her customer base. Within days she reached her goal, and ended up raising over $35,000. She was hoping to be open in fall 2019.
By November, she was given the go-ahead to start her catering operation at the new space. Given that December is such a busy month for caterers, Talmor stalled on improvements for a while, not wanting catering and construction going on simultaneously.
Construction began in January, but permitting and inspection delays kept pushing back Pomella’s opening date. Final inspections were also prolonged because of limited city staffing due to the coronavirus. Opening in the midst of shelter-in-place may be a bad idea, but not opening at all seemed even worse. Talmor decided it was now or never.
But Talmor’s previous cooking experience translates well for these times. Aside from her catering company, she once made prepared meals for now-defunct food-delivery start-up Munchery. For Pomella, she had a good idea of which dishes from the Ba-Bite menu would work best for take-out or delivery. And when the restaurant eventually opens, the space is large enough to include a market, for grab-and-go items.
The wraps, fried cauliflower and falafel, all of which were big sellers at Ba-Bite are not on the menu for now.
“From the Munchery experience, I learned about making food, chilling it and packing it so that the customer can put it together themselves so it doesn’t get soggy and gross in the box,” she said. “I think there’s a need for that and it can make people happy.”
Talmor has also put a lot of thoughts into food safety, given questions about whether coronavirus can be spread through takeout food or packaging. At this time, there is no evidence that food or food packaging can transmit COVID-19, but Talmor is taking health and safety measures seriously. Her staff wears masks in the kitchen, and she has four dedicated hand-washing stations. Customers will order and pay by phone or online. For those who choose take-out, they will drive up to the restaurant at the agreed upon time, when a staff member will put the order directly into their car or trunk. DoorDash will fulfill Pomella’s delivery orders.
Pomella’s debut menu is limited, but offers plenty to like and everything on it is organic. Of course, Talmor’s silky hummus and house-made beet, turnip and cauliflower pickles are offered. Ba-Bite regulars will notice the return of three customer favorite salads: roasted beets and yams with a Moroccan spice blend, saffron cauliflower with green olives, and butternut squash with quinoa. There are also two soups, both of which are vegan: red lentil, and squash and curried cauliflower. Mains include majadera served with pomegranate eggplant or lamb kefta, and vegetable or chicken tagine.
Desserts include baklava and rugelach. (This reporter will never forget a melancholy post on Nextdoor about the closure of Ba-Bite, which had one woman elegiacally noting: “her rugelach should be president.” If that woman is reading this, rejoice!)
Talmor is especially excited about her pickles right now. “I love winter pickles,” she said. “They ferment a bit slower and get such a good flavor, and their natural fermentation is really good for the immune system. Pickles make every meal better, they upgrade everything.”
How she continues, Talmor said, is up to customer demand. While she’s even closer to Kaiser now than before, and many of its employees used to eat lunch at Ba-Bite, there’s no way to print flyers or cards to hand out there to alert them to her opening.
“Everything I’ve done so far has been very community driven,” she said. “This is another experiment. We’re all in this together, and if people order enough for me to add more dishes to the menu or add another day, we’ll do it. Tell me what you want, and if there’s enough demand, I’ll go with it. For those of us who love to feed people, this time has been really hard.”
Just like 9/11 forever changed the way we travel, Talmor said, she feels this period will signify a marked change in the restaurant industry, but no one knows exactly how yet.
“This is a good opportunity to be part of the change and the solution,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting to be part of it.”
Call (510) 250-9215 or order online for curbside pick-up or delivery on Thursday and Friday between 2-5 p.m.