Growing up in Ventura, Evan Bloom of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen had seders that were reminiscent of most Americans' Passover traditions: brisket seasoned with Lipton Onion soup mix, a haggadah courtesy of Maxwell House and sponge cake for dessert.
They aren't Bloom's favorite gastronomic memories, but they are his most formative: They helped to inspire San Francisco's only farm-to-table Jewish comfort food restaurant and its popular Passover Seders. The holiday begins at sundown on Monday, and the waiting list for the Mission District deli's sold-out dinners continues to grow.
It's easy to see why: Bloom and Wise Sons co-founder Leo Beckerman have developed a mouthwatering menu, including wine-braised brisket, pho-inspired matzo ball soup; bittersweet chocolate torte, and handmade matzo from Beauty's Bagels in Oakland.
Some recipes are borrowed from bubbes, some are sourced from like-minded Jewish chefs and others are the result of serious research and development.
How do you craft the best matzo ball? You test it against 20 others, which is what Bloom and Beckerman did when they started Wise Sons as a pop-up in San Francisco. "Streit's and schmaltz turned out to be the secret," Bloom says. Last year, they made 600 of those savory, springy balls.
The majority of their food has no hush-hush secret. They use farm fresh ingredients and solid culinary techniques to give people what they want and expect, Bloom says. "We just make it sustainable and delicious."
The Wise Sons brisket, for instance, is salted two days ahead and simmered with fennel to make a fumet that is reduced to concentrate the flavors and then used as a sauce. The stock for their chicken soup is on the stove for 10 hours, simmering with chicken feet to give it a deep, dense flavor.
And that bittersweet chocolate torte that is so divine it could sway you to drop leaven forever? Butter. Lots of butter. "Yes, we put dairy in it," Bloom admits. "We're not kosher, and some people don't like that, but the food is a personification of who we are and how we grew up."
Before the pop-ups and brick-and-mortars -- Bloom and Beckerman currently operate the deli on 24th Street and a cafe inside the Jewish Contemporary Museum -- the Wise Sons met in the kitchen at UC Berkeley's Hillel, where they threw epic kosher barbecues together and eventually held Passover Seders in their apartment for up to 50 friends.
In 2010, a few years after graduation, they smoked their first pastrami in a San Francisco backyard. The two Los Angeles natives (Beckerman hails from Studio City) were frustrated by the lack of Jewish deli food in the Bay Area and realized there was only one solution: to make their own.
Like so many burgeoning local chefs, Bloom turned to incubator La Cocina for commercial kitchen time. In return, he put his Cal architecture degree to use, contributing to the construction of La Cocina's first San Francisco Street Food Festival.
"Being surrounded by all those women was really inspiring," Bloom recalls. "It was probably the only place where you'd find one chef making pupusas and another making matzo ball soup."
Eager to test out their recipes, Bloom and Beckerman gathered folks together for deli dinners, and when the parties quickly expanded from 20 to 200 people, it was clear they weren't alone in their desire for good babkas and gefilte fish.
Over the years, their modern take on classic Jewish food has evolved -- vegetarians fall in love with the smoked trumpet mushroom Reuben -- but some of those original childhood recipes have found a place on the deli's Passover menu, including Bloom's grandmother's mock chopped liver, made with peas, string beans, caramelized onions and ground walnuts.
"It's an homage to her, because it's what I grew up eating," Bloom says. "My uncle fondly calls it, 'I can't believe it's not liver.' "
Sounds like pretty good gastronomic memories after all.
more passover seders
The Pasta Shop: Carryout feasts include house-made charoset, horseradish, chopped liver, matzo ball soup, savory potato kugel, gefilte fish and dark chocolate-covered matzo. Available through April 15 at both the Oakland and Berkeley locations. Go to www.rockridgemarkethall.com and click on The Pasta Shop.
Perbacco: Guest chef Joyce Goldstein will join San Francisco's Perbacco chef Staffan Terje for their seventh annual Seder, cooking recipes from her book, "Cucina Ebraica," for this four-course Italian dinner featuring crispy fried artichokes and Venetian sweet and sour mackerel. $52. April 16-17. Reservations: 415-955-0663, www.perbaccosf.com.
Comal: This Berkeley treasure is offering its second annual Seder event with two multicourse family-style dinners. Executive chef Matt Gandin has created a Mexican menu with jalapeno matzo balls and beef brisket in adobo. Dinners follow Sephardic traditions, incorporating rice, beans and corn into the meal. No haggadahs, just lively conversation. $60. April 14-15. www.comalberkeley.com.
Saul's Delicatessen: Takeout or reserve to dine in the Berkeley deli and enjoy a traditional Seder plate and a host of starters and entrees, including pureed beet with labne and za'atar and Marin Sun Farms braised brisket. April 15-19 (Saturday night is the Broadway singalong Seder) $52. saulsdeli.com.
-- J. Yadegaran
Find San Francisco's Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., at the Ferry Building Market on Tuesdays, and at the original site, 3150 24th St., San Francisco; wisesonsdeli.com.