Garden Daze 

Pretend it's summer at Bacheeso's.

Brightly painted Bacheeso's Garden Bistro is a perfect place to while away winter's rainy days. Surrounded by yellow walls covered in faux vines and high, wide windows, diners sit at sturdy wooden tables on patio-like slate tiles amid wrought-iron streetlamps and an immense fountain burbling with water.

Bacheeso's is owned by Amir Iranpour and his siblings. The family, originally from Iran, has owned a catering business in the East Bay for four years. Seven months ago the Iranpours moved their business from Solano Avenue to a long-unoccupied building on San Pablo Avenue at Dwight Way.

At noon on a weekday the place is packed; many come for the "Mediterranean buffet" that covers at least thirty square feet of countertop. The buffet includes a steam table and a couple of chafing dishes for warm food, as well as a salad section, three or four desserts, and lots of plates with pan-Mediterranean items. According to Iranpour, everything is made fresh in-house, and the produce is 85 percent organic. For $6.90 a person, diners are allowed two passes. Those on the run also can pick up a large plastic container and get the buffet to go.

On my first visit my friend Brad and I grazed the buffet, heaping food on our plates and only touching half the items. Buffets are always dangerous -- I always pick too much food and then leave half my plate uneaten. This time, the problem wasn't my hunger but the uneven quality of the food. Some of the dishes were good, many fair, and some I found bland or even inedible.

Vegetarians like Brad and meat-eaters like me will find a wide variety of dishes. An unusual pairing of mango and papaya slices layered with mint-flecked feta successfully contrasted sweet and salty. Lightly braised cauliflower and asparagus, served warm, were simple and good, as were heirloom tomato slices sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and whole basil leaves. Iceberg lettuce and cucumber were dressed in a tart, herb-flecked vinaigrette. Other satisfying Mediterranean specialties included fava beans stewed with tomatoes and pans of grilled eggplant slices, roasted peppers, and fresh tomatoes.

Many of the dishes reminded me of my church potluck days. Take the baked pasta dish, a sort of lasagna with tomato-olive sauce and a Parmesan crust. I also remembered the large meatballs in a tomato-onion sauce, as well as the box-mix yellow cake sliced in half and filled with canned pineapple chunks. A whole roast turkey, carved to order, had good flavor, but the heat lamp dried out the meat. Marinated zucchini halves were barely grill-marked and otherwise raw. Avocado skins had been filled with a guacamole-style avocado salad that lacked salt and lemon.

The dishes that didn't work took the Good Housekeeping approach too far, such as the two variations on store-bought vanilla pudding: one with strawberry sauce swirled on top, and another, "flan," with store-bought caramel sauce. Commercial mayonnaise had been doctored up with garlic and herbs to make an oddly sweet "aioli" dabbed on grilled eggplant slices and undercooked artichoke halves. My friend and I prodded bemusedly at avocado wedges so underripe our forks couldn't make a dent in the flesh.

A second visit confirmed my feelings about the buffet. One of my companions gamely heaped food on a couple of plates, and had the same experience as I did, complete with the inedible avocados. The rest of my friends helped me try the remaining lunch offerings, which include sandwiches, pastas, and a few specials in the bakery case. One of the specials, dill-covered feta cheese balls seasoned with garlic and chile pepper, turned out to be great.

I also liked the roasted-vegetable sandwich, a thick French roll packed with eggplant, broccoli, red and green peppers, and even English peas. Another pal kept salting her pesto-flavored chicken salad sandwich, which had good basic flavor but needed a more assertive dressing as well as more salt. The thick pesto cream sauce on my spaghetti carbonara kept me from finishing more than a few bites, though the pasta and chunks of sausage within were properly cooked.

Bacheeso's looks like your normal cafe, and it's possible to grab a cup of coffee and read. The Iranpours are a friendly bunch, and their open charm goes a long way toward making the meal a pleasant experience. Along with lunch, the restaurant serves American-style breakfast all day, offering omelets and other egg dishes. Like its buffet, Bacheeso's tries to be a lot of things to a lot of people. If two lunch crowds were any evidence, people like this approach, and I admit it's hard to find a selection like this at such a low price. In my opinion, though, five nice things are always better than ten so-so. If the cooks took the time to prepare fewer dishes, concentrating on the interesting Middle Eastern plates that pop up here and there, I'd go back for seconds.


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