Saha Finds a New Home in Berkeley
Step into Mohamed Aboghanem’s
By Sarah Henry | Photos by Kala Minko
For a dozen years, Mohamed Aboghanem ran Saha, a self-styled “Arabic fusion” restaurant, out of the back of Hotel Carlton, a boutique lower Nob Hill hotel in the Joie de Vivre chain. The restaurant was cozy and intimate with saffron-hued walls, a hidden gem with an entrance off a dark alley near a somewhat dodgy neighborhood. Aboghanem did well there serving a diverse clientele.
Then Berkeley beckoned with big, bright, downtown digs.
On learning that his buddy was closing Herbivore, the vegan spot in the Art Deco–inspired Fine Arts Building on Shattuck Avenue, Aboghanem jumped at the opportunity to relocate. “I fell in love with the location. It’s a beautiful space. It’s got great light and energy,” says the 54-year-old originally from Yemen.
That was October 2016. Fast forward a year, and the veteran chef is still finding his way in his new home.
It’s not his first relocation. In 1986, Aboghanem left his birthplace in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, to pursue a new life in the United States. Back then, he says, it was a lot easier for Yemenis to immigrate to America. He became a citizen about 28 years ago.
The United States had long captured Aboghanem’s attention. He describes his teenage self as the kind who wore jeans and longed to try his luck in the United States. Back then to him the U.S. represented the land of freedom, cool cars, and whatever else an adolescent boy might lust after from afar.
But America didn’t turn out to be everything he expected. “I ended up in Oakland. It was rough. But good times too,” he says. “I was homesick. I missed my parents a lot, but I never thought about going back.”
Aboghanem attended classes at Oakland’s Laney College. He supported himself working as a line cook at a Greek American deli nearby. He had mentors, and he also had talent. The pulse and pace of a professional kitchen proved more compelling than textbooks.
Aboghanem went on to run a café in San Francisco before launching Saha. An Arabic word meaning “to good health,” Saha seemed a fitting name for a restaurant and rolled easily off the tongue. The emerging chef wanted to showcase the forms and flavors reminiscent of his childhood. “The more I learned cooking, the more I went back to the food I grew up with. My mom was a great cook. I decided to specialize in the dishes of my homeland,” says Aboghanem.
Yemen meets California on a plate
Here, just as in San Francisco, the chef mixes classic Yemeni dishes with menu items that have Moroccan, Mediterranean, and even Southeast Asian roots, all reimagined in his kitchen. For instance, he offers Middle Eastern pastries such as knaffe and baklava in both savory and sweet versions. His lobster knaffe and salmon baklava are signature dishes he can’t take off the menu, he says, because diners ask for them all the time.
The lobster knaffe features lobster meat chunks in a savory saffron-lobster sauce, topped with a round of bisbusa (a sweet, light Yemeni cake made with farina, a form of milled wheat). His salmon baklava combines layers of phyllo dough and the typical sweet baklava mix of chopped almonds, honey, and rose water. But in a twist, the pastry is wrapped—burrito style—around a slab of wild salmon. He pairs the dish with olive tapenade, which serves to keep it in the savory realm. Lahem sougar—local, grass-fed lamb sautéed with sumac, pine nuts, and olive oil served over smoked baba ganoush (roasted eggplant and tahini dip)—is his most popular main dish, says the chef.
Vegetarians and vegans favor his stuffed avocado (with phyllo dough, tabbouleh, and tofu) and roasted cauliflower, featuring the spice blend known as za’atar. Also in the mix: stewed okra, braised octopus, and the creamy yogurt cheese lebna.
Beyond falafel and hummus
Don’t expect to see kebabs, shawarma, or halal meats on his menu. That’s what everybody else does, says Aboghanem, who wants his food to stand out from the crowd. As for dubbing his food “fusion,” Aboghanem says it gives him the license to create culinary concoctions without borders. “I don’t want to lock myself in and repeat myself over and over, making classics everybody has had a million times. I want them to come here and get excited about trying something they haven’t had before,” says the chef. “As long as it tastes and smells Arabic, that’s all that matters. So what if I serve gingered fish with forbidden rice?”
Aboghanem, an early adopter of vegan and gluten-free dishes, says he’s surprised that his meat prix fixe menus are his biggest sellers in produce-passionate Berkeley. What doesn’t surprise him is that his clientele includes only a few Middle Eastern diners. He attributes that, in part, to his modern menu, which shies away from traditional preparations of classic regional fare.
Saha serves dinner six nights a week, as well as weekend brunch. Aboghanem’s ex-wife of 13 years (they remain good friends) Marmee Manack is the restaurant’s wine director and general manager. She’s the front-of-house presence; he seems most at ease behind the stoves. Their two children are growing up in restaurant culture. The proud papa showed this reporter a short video of two adorable, dark-haired, brown-eyed kids goofing around in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator.
On a column between the elegant dining room and open kitchen there’s a written tribute, in Arabic, to the chef’s beloved mother, who died before Aboghanem’s Berkeley restaurant opened. Due to travel restrictions, the chef missed the funerals of both his parents. “I can’t go back and forth to Yemen. It’s really bad. It’s a war zone. I just lost my dad, and I couldn’t go,” says the chef, who lives in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. “Last time we were together was April 2004—I went back home to see my parents—before I opened the restaurant.” Sana’a, he says, was a great place to grow up. “The old days were fun. Now it’s nothing but misery, war, famine. I never thought Yemen would be like that. People are hungry.”
For Aboghanem, feeding people has become his life’s work in the U.S. “Food is my thing. I love the energy of restaurants: The way the night goes, it’s like the theatre, people leave happy. I’m always on the line. I like to have my hands in the food. Every dish that comes out. I want to have my hands in it.” ♦
Saha: 2451 Shattuck Avenue (at Haste) in Berkeley
Dinner Tu–Th 5:30–9:30pm, F & Sa 5:30–10pm, Su 5:30–9pm. Brunch Sa & Su 11am–2:30pm
Saha’s Wild Mushroom Knaffe
Knaffe is one of many names for a type of Middle Eastern shredded phyllo dough, as well as for traditional desserts that feature it. At Saha, chef/owner Mohamed Aboghanem serves a knaffe dessert that is very traditional, but he wanted to create an equally exciting vegan savory option for his menu. He put the pastry over a bottom layer of a Yemeni farina cake called bisbusa (also spelled basbousa). Note: The frozen pastry can be purchased at most Greek or Middle Eastern stores, and if you can’t find it, try asking for “kataifi.”
(for use in the Knaffe Sauce)
½ bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
1½ teaspoons paprika
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons turmeric
1½ teaspoons caraway seeds
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and pepper
Blend all ingredients in a food
processor until smooth.
2 tablespoons chermoula marinade
2 tablespoons tomato sauce or diced fresh tomatoes
1 teaspoon honey
1 cup coconut milk
Mix ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Turn heat down to a simmer and reduce for 3 minutes. Serve over the knaffe.
For Yemeni Bisbusa
6 ounces plain organic tofu
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup orange juice
1 cup farina
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ cup honey (or to taste)
Preheat oven to 350° and grease a square baking pan. Blend bisbusa ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. Pour into prepared baking pan and bake until golden brown for about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Turn up oven to 425° for baking assembled knaffe.
For Mushroom Knaffe
½ cup vegan butter, melted
4–6 ounces (about ¼ package) knaffe (kataifi), thawed
4 tablespoons vegan cream cheese
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
2 cups wild mushrooms (preferred varieties are oyster and chanterelle), gently cleaned and de-stemmed then roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
Massage knaffe with melted vegan butter until mixture has softened uniformly. Brush vegan butter on the bottom of 4 small ramekins and sprinkle black sesame seeds on top. Cut round slices of bisbusa to fit in the bottom of each ramekin. Place on top of sesame seeds.
Heat a skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the mushrooms with 1 cup of water, salt, and pepper until they are soft, about 5 minutes.
Place mushrooms on top of bisbusa and then add 1 tablespoon vegan cream cheese. Top with a thick layer of knaffe and press down on ingredients. Bake for 10 minutes.
To prepare for serving, spoon some of the kanffe sauce onto each of 4 individual plates. Remove the mushroom knaffes from the oven, loosen from the ramekins with a sharp paring knife, then carefully unmold one onto each plate, and serve.
Contributing editor Sarah Henry’s food stories have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco, and online at NPR’s The Salt, Civil Eats, and Lucky Peach. Henry writes regularly for Edible San Francisco and Edible Marin & Wine Country. She is the author of Farmsteads of the California Coast and the co-author, with chef Preeti Mistry, of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul, due out this fall.
A self-described free spirit, daydreamer, and road tripper, Kala Minko is an Oakland-based photographer. Find her work at kalaminko.com.