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No Chickpeas, Please

Tawla forgoes falafel and hummus for a fascinating—if sometimes perplexing—tour of the eastern Mediterranean.

SLIDESHOW

A spread at Tawla.

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Tawla’s dining room.

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The eggplant maqluba.

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Azhar Hashem was raised in Jordan but moved to San Francisco in her teens and spent seven years as a marketer at Google. During that time, she came to the conclusion that the food that she’d grown up eating was poorly represented in her adopted home. You can see where this is headed.

The Googler, of course, set out to disrupt the dining scene, and the instrument of her ambition is Tawla, the restaurant she opened in June on the edge of the Mission. It shares its name with a backgammon-style game popular in the Arabic-speaking world, and it has a menu that crosses many borders, absorbing influences from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel, western Iran, and other countries in the eastern Mediterranean while steadfastly avoiding three regional staples: hummus, falafel, and kebab.

No disrespect to those dishes, Hashem says, except that she regards them as “Mediterranean 1.0,” a long way from bad but also limited and lacking dimension, the edible equivalent of a flip phone. Tawla is Hashem’s version of a culinary upgrade.

It’s a cool idea. But as is the case with other products spun out of the tech world, I had mixed reactions to it. At times, I wondered how I’d ever gotten by without Tawla’s existence. At others, it came across as an odd user experience, with a few too many off-target dishes and an atmosphere too awkward to encourage repeat visits. 

But first, let’s dispense with the indispensable, like the ful medames, a fava bean spread that millions of Egyptians wake up to every morning and that I’d be content to eat every night. Tawla’s classic-modern take has a cumin kick and a lemony bite from the sumac that seasons its crown of vinegary red-onion ribbons. A soft-boiled egg, its yolk the consistency of custard and its white stained sunset-yellow by fenugreek, imparts additional richness. You can go ahead and put this ful in my lunch box, too. 

There’s also a lot to like about the lush labneh, which the kitchen serves three ways: dusted with za’atar, sprinkled with a hazelnut dukka, and heated through with maras pepper. And there’s even more to admire in the muhammara, its nutty texture as welcome as its sweet-tart flavor.

Nearly all of the menu’s numerous mezes, cold and hot, call for great bread. Tawla’s got that, too: Pocket-shaped but doughier than pita and endowed with a bronze, za’atar-gilded crust, it’s close to a Platonic ideal.

That words like za’atar, muhammara, and mujaddara have entered our lexicon owes partly to the work of Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born British chef whose recipes have introduced home cooks across the world to the sort of food that colonizes Tawla’s menu. It was an Ottolenghi recipe that first got me making eggplant maqluba, but I’ve never made one that matches Tawla’s. A kind of pan-cooked terrine, the eggplant is flash fried and paired with rice before being flipped so that its caramelized bottom becomes its top. Underpinned by tomatoes and overlaid with crisp zucchini coins, it’s like eggplant parmesan’s lactose-free cousin. You’ll never miss the cheese.

Tawla’s menu illustrates the natural kinship between eastern Mediterranean and California cooking. There wasn’t anything I didn’t want to order. But while I was happy to have opted for the whole roasted rockfish, its belly filled with walnut stuffing and its body drizzled with a walnut-tahini sauce called tarator, I can’t say the same for several of the mezes.

Sardine lakerda, a riff on a dish traditionally made with brined bonito, was direly oversalted, a mistreatment of a fish that was right in the middle of its sweet local run. The enticing prospect of charred octopus with dandelion greens and chutney-like mango shatta gave way to a reality of mealy tentacles, intensely salty mango, and greens that had been cooked down to a bland mush. Lamb neck, rolled around lamb sausage and braised in lambrusco vinaigrette, was compromised by the sausage, which crumbled on the plate, desert-dry.

But dishes are easy enough to tweak. Tawla’s trickier challenge is the dining room itself, a narrow space that feels chilly in both temperature and spirit. Dashes of turquoise and Moorish pattern-work along the walls lend some character, but the restaurant’s setting lacks the warmth that the best of its food exudes. There isn’t a great seat in the house.

Still, the cocktails give you cause to linger, chief among them the House Arak, a refreshing on-the-rocks concoction of anise-infused vermouth and grapefruit. They’re a more compelling reason to hang around than Tawla’s desserts. Both times I tried it, the pistachio brittle and apricot compote atop the mahalabia—an orange-water-scented milk pudding—tasted sour and scorched. When I informed my waiter, he just shrugged. Perhaps it was the dish that the kitchen wanted. But I suspect it was a bug that needed to be worked out.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Tawla
Fresh bread....................................................$3
Three labnehs................................................$7
Muhammara...................................................$6
Ful medames.................................................$12
Eggplant maqluba..........................................$25
Whole rockfish, spicy walnut
stuffing, tarator (for two).................................$55
Drinks:
House Arak.....................................................$14
Negroni Levant...............................................$14
TOTAL........................................................... $136

Tawla
206 Valencia St. (near Duboce Ave.), 415-814-2704
2 ½ stars

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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