Chef Reem Assil made a splash last year when she opened Reem’s in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, introducing locals to Arab-style dishes influenced by her Palestinian-Syrian heritage.
With a James Beard Award nomination in her pocket, Assil now has a bigger stage to showcase her food in her new restaurant, Dyafa in Jack London Square. Opened in mid-April in the former home of Haven, Assil is creating just as much buzz as Reem’s with a variety of mezze, or shared plates.
Dyafa, the Arab word for “hospitality,” is a partnership between Assil and chef-restaurateur Daniel Patterson’s Alta Group. Assil’s new restaurant kept much of Haven’s bones, which includes the large open kitchen and long counter, as well as the high exposed ceilings. A Middle Eastern vibe comes from the colorful mosaic floor tiles and patterned plates and ceramic pottery displayed on the wall near the bar.
Speaking of the bar, I’m obsessed by the mesmerizing Arak Sour cocktail, a beautifully presented drink made with the Lebanese spirit arak and blended with noyaux, lime, gin and egg white foam. The specialty cocktails are the creation of Alta Group’s beverage director Aaron Paul, who was inspired by the Middle Eastern ingredients from Assil’s many cookbooks.
The food menu brings a level of sophistication not often found at Middle Eastern restaurants in the Bay Area while still creating a family dining atmosphere where plates are passed and eaten with freshly baked bread, warm from the oven. During a recent dinner with friends, we tried a variety of mezze — offered in cold and hot sections — along with an order of Assil’s signature mana’eesh bread served simply with za’atar and olive oil ($6).
There’s also a gluten-free option of pita bread, or khobz, but the thin za’atar chickpea pancake ($3) really doesn’t have the same heft and comfort of the za’atar mana’eesh bread.
The mezze dishes are considered dips to go with the breads, but they feature substantive ingredients like lamb tartare and stuffed squid that could easily make them meals in themselves. The zidbiyit gambari ($19), for example, is from the hot mezze section and features shrimp in a tomato sauce, peppers, coriander and chickpeas, served in a claypot. It’s a comforting, homey dish.
The labneh wa ful ($9) in the cold section is a lovely yogurt and fava salad with flowering coriander. The fava beans in the dish have the same texture as blistered shishito peppers. The muhammara ($10) is a brilliant bright red dip made of red bell peppers, walnut and pomegranate. It’s reminiscent of hummus but not as thick or creamy.
The haliyoon ($14) doesn’t really seem like a dip; it’s blistered asparagus stems with a fava green aioli, pita crumbs and fried egg on top. We could have used the bread to sop up the egg, but the yolk was a bit on the done side.
There are three types of offerings in the moqabalat, or bites, section, but they are the least adventurous items: Mukassarat (candied mixed nuts), zaytoon (marinated olives) or kabees (house-made pickles).
Assil’s showcase dish is the spicy whole roasted fish, or samaka harra, but at $42 it’s also the most expensive item on the menu. My friends and I actually skipped this because we were nearly full from trying the various mezze dishes. We also wanted to save room for the maklouba ($26), the Palestinian national dish of layered rice. At Dyafa, Assil makes it with roasted eggplant, cauliflower, charred tomato and crispy potatoes (that almost seem like potato chips).
The maklouba is a unique and beautiful creation that is flavorful, with the well-cooked eggplant blending its juices with the cauliflower and rice. The crispy potatoes on top, which almost gave the dish a casserole feel, could have added another texture to the overall plate but it wasn’t as crispy as advertised. Still, this is a dish worth trying.
Having tried the pastries and baked goods at Reem’s, I was excited for the dessert menu. Dyafa offers just four items: kenafeh, a sweet cheese pastry in a phyllo crust (also available at Reem’s); awameh, or donuts; tamareen, dates with toasted almonds and chocolate; and booza, a fun name for a dessert of orange blossom ice cream with crispy phyllo.
We tried the tamareen ($6), the chocolate-dipped dates, and they’re exactly as advertised. It’s a pleasant end-of-the-meal snack, but nothing spectacular.
The kenafeh ($10) was nicely done and satisfying. Flavored with orange blossom and pistachio, it was not overly sweet.
With a lot of variety on the menu, Dyafa is introducing the East Bay to a new way of dining. Some of the beautiful dishes and fresh ingredients bring exciting new flavors that are intriguing and enticing. On her own, Assil seems to be redefining Arab food in the states.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus: Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.