Dyafa dazzles with modern Arabic cuisine in Jack London Square – San Francisco Chronicle
For anyone who wants to know what Arabic food looks like through a Bay Area lens: Just head to Dyafa in Oakland and order a sandwich named Steph Curry.
The flatbread ($12) wraps around turmeric-infused cauliflower, eggplant, feta and roasted garlic that hits its target like a Curry three-pointer.
The Middle East’s tense political situation evokes strong emotion, much like Vietnam immediately after the war. Yet when diners step through Dyafa’s door, with its sanctuary restaurant sign taped in the window, any tension is soothed. The owner and chef, Reem Assil, knows how to create a place for peace, scented with zaatar and a hint of orange blossom. The name, Dyafa, means hospitality in Arabic, and that idea is on full display here.
The restaurant space was once Daniel Patterson’s Haven. Patterson has partnered with Assil much as he did with Nigel Jones (turning Alta CA into Jones’ Jamaican-inspired Kaya), and with Heena Patel (transforming Alta MSP in Dogpatch into the Indian-flavored Besharam).
While the Dyafa interior feels much the same as Haven’s, subtle touches reset the stage for enjoying one of the world’s oldest cuisines. Blue and white tile with a touch of gold covers part of the floor, and turquoise, purple and gold fabric covers the seat cushions, adding a modicum of color. The open floor-to-ceiling windows in the 105-seat dining room overlook a row of outdoor tables and the shoreline of Jack London Square beyond.
In a previous career Assil was a community organizer, but on a visit to Syria in 2010 she connected with the street food and her own heritage. (Her mother was Syrian and her father was Lebanese; she was born near Boston but grew up in Palestine, and the food she was raised on was multicultural.) Upon her return to the U.S., she enrolled in the bread and pastry program at Laney College in Oakland.
A 2017 Chronicle Rising Star Chef, Assil also owns Reem’s California, an Arab bakery she opened in May 2017 in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Her personal quest has enriched the entire Bay Area and brought national attention to her work.
“I think people are yearning for a place to feel safe,” said Assil in a phone interview after my visits. “I think we’ve lost sight of what hospitality really feels like so I wanted to re-create the warmth I felt when I went to the Arab world.”
She’s collected a staff that is warm, friendly and helpful at guiding diners through the menu of muhammara, zidbiyit gambari and musakhan. Many people won’t be familiar with the names, or even some flavors, but Assil has made Dyafa a good place to check them out.
In the same way Assil easily refers to a popular local basketball hero in her menu, she’ll give, with careful respect, traditional dishes a modern edge.
You might not find any of Dyafa’s cocktails (all $13) in Arab countries. Dabke on the Moon combines mezcal and Tequila with strawberry to tame the impact of cilantro and cumin. The Mexi-Pali with Tequila gets its bright pink blush from beets, accented with lemon, marjoram and tamarind. Dark-Skinned Nightingale combines rum, dates, almond and coconut flavors with a frothy cap of egg whites. If you like cocktails on the sweeter side, these are for you. However, they are compatible with the food, as is the wine list, which features a rosé flight of four wines at lunch ($17) and a Riesling flight ($18) at dinner.
At Dyafa there’s always something on the table to share, and the cocktails help to promote the idea of communal dining.
A collection of 11 cold and hot mezzes fills the dinner menu and includes the classic muhammara ($11), a roasted red pepper dip accented with Aleppo chiles, walnuts and pomegranate, creating a blend that seesaws between sweet and spicy. It’s served with one of the menu’s selling points: pita ($3) made to order. The pita is pulled out of the oven with a dome that, until it deflates, resembles a two-crusted pie.
The must-order item that goes with everything is mana’eesh ($6), a puffy flatbread paved with zaatar and olive oil. I discovered I like it just as much cool as hot from the oven: When hot it has a pliable texture like Neapolitan pizza, but when cool it’s crisp and goes well with many of the mezzes.
Assil and her crew have created an exceptional version of fattoush ($13), a salad of Little Gems and arugula with radish, tomato and cucumber in a pomegranate and citrus dressing, with irregular shards of crisp pita.
Hummus, the base of many dishes in the Middle East, is listed under the hot mezze section because the silken chickpea puree forms a shallow bowl to hold warm pieces of spiced lamb ($16) with dried lime and cured sumac. The lamb breast is slowly cooked in its own fat before it is pulled apart, grilled and served with an Aleppo and citrus sauce.
Squid ($15) stuffed with freekeh, a popular Middle Eastern grain, is bland until you scoop into the bright green sauce, called zhoug, strong with cilantro, the heat of serrano chiles, garlic, cumin, lemon and olive oil.
Sumac, a ground berry with a complex and tangy lemon-like flavor that trips across the tongue more vividly than citrus, is a key component in many combinations. It distinguishes one of the four main courses, a confit chicken ($30) centered in a soft flatbread that ruffles over the edge of the plate. Diners dig through the blanket of onions, greens, purple cabbage, radishes and pine nuts to get to the fragrant sumac-spiced chunks of chicken, pulling off the edges of the bread along the way to sop up the juices.
You could still taste the freshness in the green, yellow wax and romano beans even though they were blistered from the grill and cooked through, coated in charred tomato sauce lively with charred serrano chile and thick with pita crumbs. The dish is a takeoff on the Lebanese green bean stew called lubia.
The braised lamb shank ($36) was one of the few dishes that left me wanting. The lamb, piled high with chopped parsley, yogurt, garlic chips and almonds, had little flavor, further suppressed by the toppings.
That wasn’t the case with the whole fish ($42) that’s plastered with ground chiles and other spices, and served with a cooling side salad with bulgur, yogurt, cucumber, mint, parsley and nasturtium petals.
The vegetarian option, maklouba ($26), is another creative take on a traditional meat dish. It consists of layers of rice, fried eggplant, curried cauliflower and charred tomatoes piled high with potato chips and fried parsley. Traditionally, thin slices of potatoes line the bowl so the casserole can be unmolded, but Assil decided to add chips on top, as another way to bring fun to the dining experience.
The menu is more compact at lunch, centering on three flatbread wraps. In addition to the vegetarian Steph Curry there’s a kefta burger with tahini and cabbage slaw ($14), and chicken kebab ($14) with grilled and pickled vegetables and garlic aioli. The main appetizer is a mezze platter that contains four spreads, including red pepper, hummus, eggplant and yogurt with a scattering of olives, pickled beets and cauliflower and pita.
When it comes to dessert Assil offers booza ($10), orange blossom ice cream topped with shredded phyllo; kenafeh ($10), a sweet cheese wrapped in phyllo flavored with pistachio, cherries and orange blossom; and a dish of dates stuffed with almonds and coated with chocolates, called tamareen ($6), that makes a near-perfect ending to a dinner that seamlessly blends three cultures.
“I feel like in my evolution as a chef it’s been amazing to get back to my culture and to celebrate the things I felt a little estranged from,” said Assil, who now has a 5- month-old baby. “I want to share that with Oakland, a place I call home.”
Diners walk away satisfied and full, exposed to a glimpse of Arab culture, a state that obviously makes Assil proud.
Noise: Four Bells
44 Webster St. (Jack London Square), Oakland; 510-250-9491 or www.dyafaoakland.com. Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Some lots nearby. Difficult street parking.