Tawla in SF’s Mission – Come to the Table and Feast

tawla-exterior

I walked into Tawla just seven weeks after it opened, so I was ready to not be wowed. Restaurants usually need a little time to get their act together, to get in their groove. But not Tawla. Owner Azhar Hashem, a former Googler, had the foresight (and the Google money, one imagines) to make sure her opening and the weeks that followed were flawless. Hashem had no real culinary background, but a passion to bring high end, updated “Eastern Mediterranean” food to the City. And, luckily, she has a Jordanian mother who cooks.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

No, mama isn’t in the kitchen, but she was instrumental in helping Hashem train her chef, Joseph Magidow (formerly of Delfina), and her Jordanian sous chef, in the culinary ways of the Middle East – or, in Hashem’s words, “the Levant before there were borders.” The food at Tawla is a mix, not so much a fusion, of Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, Syrian, Palestinian, Israeli, and, of course, Mom’s Jordanian heritage. The team worked together for a year on the recipes, with Hashem’s mother coming out periodically to help.  Hashem calls this home cooking: dishes that are served for family, typically not in restaurants. The name, “Tawla”, means “table;” in essence, you are coming to her table. (Another use of the word is “backgammon table” and Hashem envisions a time when they may have backgammon tables on the soon-to-be back patio.)

The space is airy and modern, with beautiful Moorish-looking tilework and Aztec motifs (a nod to the Mission, of course.) The motif continues to a partial glass partition between the open kitchen and restaurant. It’s possible to sit at the counter where the bar is, and peer into the kitchen, or you can sit at the Chef’s counter and get one-on-one attention.

tawla-interior

I brought a vegetarian friend on my first night, and tried one of their signature cocktails, A Date to Remember: date and saffron-infused oloroso sherry, with Caramaro (a cardamom amaro) and bitters.

Save the date!

A date to remember.

It was a spectacular cocktail, really, with the caramel notes of the sherry playing off the date, without being overly sweet. My friend ordered the House Arak, which had a very nice grapefruit flavor, and infused vermouth with anise. Refreshing.

We were served a little amuse – exemplifying the theme of eating what Hashem grew up with – a perfect little green slice of unripe plum, to dip in salt. There are many cultures that salt their fruit, and I remember as a kid eating cut lemons with salt, so this little bite brought that all back for me. Tart and salty, a nice touch.

Unripe green pear and salt.

Unripe green pear and salt.

Next, we ordered the artichoke skordalia with bread (bread is ordered separately). Skordalia, typically a Greek potato and garlic puree, was elevated here to fluffy aioli status, almost; silky, creamy, and oh-so-garlicky, to be scooped up with the luscious, crackly homemade bread – a sort of pita that comes right out of the ovens and into your bowl.

Skordalia bread.

Skordalia bread.

I find it hard to believe I would ever come here and not eat this.

We split the Mujadarra – a favorite dish of mine that I’ve had as takeout from many delis: usually brown lentils with caramelized onions on top.

Mujadara.

Mujadara.

Hashem confessed that this is her favorite dish, as well. At Tawla, it is made with green Puy lentils, which hold their shape and texture so much better than the brown, and a fabulous pile of crispy fried shallots on top, and creamy labneh, strained yogurt. The dish managed to be incredibly homey, yet light. Just lovely.

Next we had the sweet corn dish – reminiscent, to me, of the Indian dish Vaghareli Makai – a browned butter delight, sweet and slightly peppery. The corn was obviously very fresh and perfect for the season.

Sweet corn.

Sweet corn.

The eggplant maqluba (literally, “upside down”) was a heavier dish, very much comfort food. The dish is known for being “inverted” – with stewed meat and vegetables under a bed of rice, it is then flipped over so that the juices flow into the rice.

Muqluba.

Maqluba.

Here, the “inversion,” we were told, was that there was more eggplant than rice in their version, and topped by crispy, ultra thin slices of buttery zucchini. A marvelous dish. Hashem told us that her mother had insisted they use a type of Early Girl tomatoes that hadn’t sweetened yet, and were still slightly tart, so the sauce was tangy, offsetting the bitterness of the blackened eggplant. I really enjoyed the charred flavor; my friend didn’t like it quite as well, but there were enough portions of the dish to eat that we were both well pleased.

There is an eclectic wine list, with offerings from Lebanon, France, Italy, Greece, Spain and California. My dry rosé from Provence paired beautifully with the spiced food.

Rose.

Rose.

The service was spot-on, too, for a newly opened restaurant. Tawla seems to have fought the new-opening syndrome by having at least 10 people on the floor at any one time. It was a little crazy, to see so many employees, but it also made for excellent, friendly service. It was particularly pleasant, however, having Ms. Hashem herself on board, explaining her beloved dishes and making recommendations with exceeding enthusiasm and warmth.

We ended our meal with her favorite dessert – semolina crepes with a type of farmer’s cheese, similar to ricotta, with honey, lemon verbena, and mastic – a resin or sap from the mastic tree, which I imagine is much like our maple syrup, but not as sweet. Unfortunately, we found this dish a little bland; it actually could have used a little more sweetness, or more verbena. It felt like it must be a cherished dish from childhood, but without that context, her memories of it, perhaps, for us it needed a little something to make it pop.

Crepes.

Crepes.

Nonetheless, I was completely wowed by my first night here. The fresh flavors, the brightness of the food, the service, the ambiance: everything worked. My friend commented that it is the only really upscale (and much needed) Middle Eastern restaurant in the Mission, and she was also very happy with the number of veggie offerings on the menu. (Some might call Arabian Nights “upscale,” and while I do love that restaurant, it doesn’t compare.) Everything here felt new and modern – for Ms. Hashem, it is no accident there is no hummus or kabobs at Tawla. I couldn’t wait to come back.

I brought the BF for my second visit.

We started out with the three labneh appetizer – three lovely blobs of creamy yogurt topped with hazelnut dukkah (an Egyptian crunchy, herb/spice/nut/seed blend), with zatar (another spice blend common to many countries in the Middle East), and the third blended with Marash pepper (Turkish). And, of course, that wonderful bread. The labnehs needed salt, for both of us, and were only really flavorful if you got the spice blends in each bite with the yogurt. For that reason, the Marash was my favorite, as it was blended right into the yogurt.

Labneh with bread.

Labneh with bread.

Next came a bowl of well-roasted cauliflower in tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds), garlic, and lemon, which Ms. Hashem referred to as “crack.”

Charred Cauliflower with tahini sauce.

Charred Cauliflower with tahini sauce.

It was indeed very good, the charred cauli swimming in the creamy sauce. There were smoky notes and tanginess. It was another winner of a dish that I’d order again. But nothing compared to my next dish….

Kibbeh.

Kibbeh Niyyeh

Kibbeh Niyyeh – chopped “antique” (aged), cumin-y/peppery, raw beef, with mild raw onions, bulgur wheat, and mint. It was delicately spiced and bathed in a delicious olive oil. This dish was insanely good: light, slightly spicy, elegant. Of course, it called for another round of bread.

Feeling for some reason we needed some virtue in our meal, we ordered a vegetable dish.

Horta.

Horta.

Horta, a Greek steamed greens dish. It was nice, and maybe if it hadn’t been sandwiched between the kibbeh and the meatballs, I would have appreciated it more.

Meatballs

Meatballs

These were the tastiest meatballs I’ve ever had, period. Yes, I challenge you to make me better meatballs. Please! So flavorful, made with beef, pork, and lamb, in a light, bright, very fresh tomato sauce, and so tender. I hope they don’t ever take these off the menu.

The BF thought this meal was a bit overpriced, but I didn’t. I was sad to have it end. Talwa seems to already be achieving what another Mission restaurant with a heftier price tag I recently reviewed is trying to do – using the beloved flavors of a cuisine without falling into the trap of the expected dishes of that cuisine. Yes, the dishes here are typical of their regions, but they’re updated; and yet, they feel timeless. Hashem wants you to eat what she grew up eating, but in the here and now; and luckily for us, that means right here in the Mission.

Tawla
206 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
415-814-2704
www.tawlasf.com

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