I kept passing the still-closed Tunisian restaurant Gola for weeks, willing it to open by the sheer force of my mind, wondering what lay behind the ornate, wrought-iron gates and the slabs of timber artfully arranged on the storefront window.
The space (formerly Brew Coop) underwent quite a metamorphosis, with a gorgeous new bar, a long, carved wooden slab of a table down the center of the restaurant, Tunisian clay pottery on the walls, and a DJ booth. On our first visit, charming Chef/Owner Rafik Bouzidi (of Union Square’s La Marsa fame) spoke to us passionately of what he envisioned for Gola: A late-night cocktail hour with snacks and music (obvi), brunch, and the introduction of food cooked in a “gola” to the Mission. “Gola” is the name of a clay vessel, sealed with dough, used to stew meats and vegetables. With its Mediterranean sensibilities and North African spices, Tunisian cuisine will surely be a hit in our neighborhood.
We visited during the first couple weeks of Gola’s soft opening and enjoyed the warm service and excellent food.
We started with the brika au thon:
Oh my! A light, crispy phyllo dough crepe (more typically made with malouska, thin pastry sheets made of semolina), enveloped a poached egg yolk, potato, tuna conserva (a staple in Tunisian cooking) and parmesan cheese, and was then carefully fried. We’d first tried brika while living in Marseille, France, decades ago, and I was thrilled to have found this version so close to us. Shatteringly crisp, the delicate pastry gave way to an oozy, golden yolk that spilled seductively over the soft mash of seasoned potato and tuna, with capers giving the whole thing a lovely, briny brightness. A star of a dish.
Next up, Tunisian deviled eggs.
Another show-stopper. Hard-boiled egg halves nestled in a dollop of house-made harissa aioli, flavored with machwiya – a puree of onions, garlic, Anaheim chiles, olive oil and tabil, a Tunisian spice blend that also flavored the shrimp.
The fat shellfish were perfectly roasted, and redolent of coriander and caraway. Such explosive flavors; these are perhaps my new favorite deviled eggs. My only quibble was that the egg itself was a bit too cold, but I can see where it would be hard to keep these on hand and at room temperature. Don’t try to eat them in one bite! They must be cut and enjoyed in a leisurely way. Or, do yourself a favor and just get two orders right off the bat.
The BF had the merguez shakshuka, with merguez made in house at Gola:
The sausage was a mix of lamb and beef, mint and other delicious spicing. The mint was predominant, unlike any other merguez I’ve ever had, and quite delicious. Gola Chef Bouzidi himself served us this dish, and apologized that the texture should have been a little thicker. We didn’t even notice, as we were too busy sopping it up with their gorgeous house-made bread dusted with caraway and coriander.
Wonderfully crispy and light in texture, we were told this would also be the dough for their various pizzas. Shakshouka is one of those comforting, sensual dishes that entails much scooping, dripping, and moaning. Get the bread.
For my main, I had the chrieme, a red snapper and shrimp stew with sherried tomatoes and lots of peppers in a lightly spicy tomato chili sauce.
I found this similar to a bouillabaise, but with peppery bites from the aged, house-made harissa, a specialty of Chef Bouzidi’s. More fodder for that enticing bread, the seafood was perfectly cooked. A testament to Gola was that the BF wolfed everything down — both lamb and seafood — foods typically not at all on his list of favorites.
I tried two of their cocktails; one, recommended by our server, was a wonderful blend of floral hibiscus and mescal with a gorgeous macerated (and edible) flower. It was not at all sweet, but instead a perfect combination of tang and smoke. I also had Gola’s version of an Old Fashioned, made with date syrup. It was potent yet refreshing, and also surprisingly not overly sweet. Count me in for the late-night cocktail hour.
On my second visit with a friend, we found the place jam-packed and jumping, and the long center table replaced by individual two-tops to afford more seating, the Chef told me later. Evidently, word had gotten out! The menu had changed slightly; none of the pizzas were in evidence, but Chef divulged that they would be back for brunch, which was in the offing.
I insisted we have the brika because I’d loved it so much the first time, and for our second starter we shared the octopus salad:
Meaty, slightly charred tentacles lay atop peppery frisée, crunchy red onions, parsley, salty olives and capers, all tossed in fruity olive oil. The contrasting textures in this were everything, and the herbaceous salad played well off the richness of the octopus.
Next, we had the arugula salad.
Perhaps this was a bit too similarly salad-y to have in the same meal, this time with dates, toasted almonds, and shaved, buttery manchego in a slightly sweet fig vinaigrette. Still, it was fresh and tasty in its own right, although a bit under-dressed for my taste.
Of course, we ordered the bread to sop up the sauce on our final dish.
The roasted eggplant came stuffed with rice and vegetables, mint, and “Tunisian spices” (I’m assuming the same tabil blend from my first visit. I distinctly tasted the warmth of cinnamon, coriander, and cumin) and was topped with melty cheese. The shishitos on top were a nice touch, and I liked the chickpeas in the piquant sauce. The dish was a warm hug, and quite filling, although unfortunately we found it under-seasoned, and asked for salt. That was all the dish needed to liven it up to its full potential; it’s very often just the little things.
While this second visit wasn’t quite as revelatory as the first, I’m eager to go back and try the lamb riblets and the vegetarian shakshouka, the baklava and crème brulee with orange blossom water, or just about anything else Chef Bouzidi would like to introduce us to.
Gola was still in its soft opening mode both times I visited, and I’m looking forward to seeing what dishes will make the permanent cut, or if there will be a rotating, seasonal menu. It is clear Bouzidi is excited to bring the exotic flavors of his home country to the Mission. And we’re here for it.
819 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110