All restaurants aim to bring people together, arguably none more so than Dyafa, Oakland’s first high-profile Palestinian restaurant. Its chef, Reem Assil, hopes to foster community and conversation through food — the Middle Eastern food of her upbringing, which she says has been invisibilized in America: warm, chewy mana’eesh; smoky, charred mutabbal; silky, thick labneh; braised shakriyah the size of my leg.
She got off to a controversial start with her first business, Reem’s. It’s an “Arab street corner bakery” which opened in Fruitvale Village last year with support from local food business incubator La Cocina. Presiding over the counter there is a larger-than-life mural of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian leader convicted, some say questionably, by an Israeli court for a 1969 deadly bombing at a Jerusalem supermarket. Within Reem’s first weeks, there were public protests, death threats by pro-Israel fringe groups. But there were also rave reviews for her za’atar-dusted flatbreads and, ultimately, a James Beard nomination. It was a swift rise for someone who cut her teeth as a community organizer, not in fancy kitchens.
But when Assil opened Dyafa, there was no provocative mural. Instead, she opened it in partnership with nationally recognized chef Daniel Patterson on a spring day in Jack London Square, free of political drama.
At that time, Assil herself had a different kind of drama: a brand-new baby. As a mother of a one-month-old, I could barely find time to shower. Assil opened a 105-seat upscale restaurant. “She’s a superhuman,” our server explained, setting down a woven basket of puffy, piping-hot, pita. Tearing into it, I agree.
Moreover: she’s a talented chef. Born and raised in suburban Boston by a Syrian father and Palestinian mother, she has made it her mission to make her family’s cuisine seen, enhancing many Americans’ idea of casual Middle Eastern fare beyond the reductive falafel-shawarma realm. (Although Reem’s does make a mean falafel sandwich. It’s wrapped in blistered flatbread with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and mint — all dripping with a messy green swirl of spicy zhoug and super-garlicky tahini that, quite literally, stayed with me for days.)
You won’t find falafel on the lunch or dinner menu at Dyafa. There isn’t much overlap with the bakery at all, actually, other than a couple of mezzes, the mana’eesh, and that dreamy-creamy labneh. You’ll pay a bit more here, where diners watch sailboats bobbing in the bay instead of BART trains rolling by. At Dyafa, for example, the milky-white mound of labneh is served in gorgeous, ceramic bowls, handmade by potters in Jerusalem. Looking like a savory Dairy Queen blizzard, it’s hollowed and heaped with wisps of radish, flowering coriander, and the crunch of sugar snap peas. Meanwhile, at $16, the hummus is actually twice the price of Reem’s, but for good reason: It comes flecked with cured sumac and sunken with meaty, crisped hunks of spiced lamb.
If Reem’s fare is considered everyday “Arabic street food”, the food at Dyafa, which means “hospitality,” is a family-style feast: The kind where you just keep eating. I devoured certain share plates all by myself. Like the loubieh, a wild tangle of yellow and green summer beans dressed in a chunky sauce of serrano-spiked roasted tomatoes and crumbs of toasted pita. And the kibbeh nayyeh, a fleshy, Lebanese-style mash of raw lamb bound by bulgur, and emboldened by lemon zest, baharat, and the heat of burnt cinnamon. It’s a tartare with flavor as flamboyant as the hot-pink triangles of pickled turnips scattered on top.
Meanwhile, the cocktails, from beverage director Aaron Paul, are as colorful as the restaurant’s jewel-toned chair cushions. Cocktails with ingredients like medjool dates and Greek yogurt and za’atar. Cocktails, like the Wattani Habibi, a Gatorade-yellow, Negroni-like number served up with white vermouth. And the Mexi-Pali, a tall, fluorescent fuchsia, tequila-, beet-, and tamarind-infused marvel. Cocktails that, on all three visits, took so long to arrive that I thought they might never come.
By the time our server presents our suhoons, or larger plates, we’re already near-stuffed with mezzes, including the batata harra: humble potatoes, twice fried, bronzed and crisped, with cilantro, garlic, aleppo pepper, and a kick of harissa-spiked yogurt sauce. It’s like Lebanon’s answer to patatas bravas, and I loved it. We’d also scarf both a halloumi-and-squash-topped flatbread and an entire basket of pita. Still, we request a second basket, because how can we not?
All of which makes the grand entrance of the shakriyah almost comical. It’s a humongous, halal lamb shank, braised for three or fours in a baharat spice blend; all but its protruding-bone smothered by gremolata, almond slivers, and a garlicky yogurt sauce, sitting pretty in a mushy, casserole-like tub of Arabic rice. The meat tears easily off the bone, but I find it too cinnamon-y sweet to eat. Which is probably for the best, really, given how full I am.
The lamb leaves me longing for the sharper, more distinctive flavors of the mezze. So do the mostly muted flavors in three of the other four main dishes. The samaka harra, a whole roasted rock cod, is the highlight, arched and aglitter with ground chiles, it’s surprisingly mild flavor offset by a bright, lemony cucumber-bulgur salad. The mjusakhan, chunks of tangy, sumac-tinged chicken confit topped with pickled onion and shreds of purple cabbage, is nourishing and visually arresting, but overall tastes less impressive than it looks: It comes plopped in the center of a yet another circle of unleavened bread, a giant floppy disk called markook — so plan ahead and dial back your cries for “More, pita please!” accordingly.
And if you’re a Reem’s regular, perhaps, adjust your expectations too. Whereas the bakery feels deeply personal, Dyafa feels more Daniel Patterson. The airy space housed his failing Haven before he and Assil joined forces to open this restaurant, and despite Arabic tunes and pretty terracotta floor tiling, it still looks much the same.
Without a provocative mural or posters promoting prison strikes, the decor at Dyafa is tamer, more typical. There’s the go-to walnut wood, leafy plants, and rattan light fixtures. A small square “SANCTUARY RESTAURANT” sticker stuck by the front door is the only sign of our highly charged times — a symbol more meaningful than any peeling Zagat or owl-eyed TripAdvisor accolade.
Assil’s ideals seep into her hiring philosophy: Experience isn’t necessary, she says, genuine warmth is. When it comes to the latter, she has nailed it. The servers’ training, perhaps, not so much: I witnessed broken glasses, unfilled water glasses, long-empty un-cleared cocktail glasses, chipped plates, rushed plates, and sauce-streaked-never-exchanged plates. On one night, our server delivered the bill without a “Would you like to see the dessert menu?”
But I wasn’t too bothered by any of the slip ups, at least not on the two balmy nights that we showed up without a reservation and were seated outside. I don’t know if was the novelty of the outdoors for this Fogust-chilled San Franciscan, but I much preferred it to the standard decor in doors. Faint music trickled out from inside. The glowing fireball of the setting sun illuminated our faces. We drank and dipped, swiping our pita left and right, until our shared mezze bowls were scraped clean.
Everyone around us — servers, strangers — were chatty and happy, easygoing and energized, bound by the abundance of food before us. And when our server cleans off the table by pinching our bits of spilled food with her fingers, like a parent, I get a tingling of that feeling Assil is after: There’s indeed a kind of at-home comfort to Dyafa. Even if it’s not your home. As one of my dinner guests remarked, several dishes were “just like Grandma makes for Shabbat.” But that’s Assil’s point — there’s common ground to be found.
Disclosure: Rachel Levin is a contributing committee member to Voices from the Kitchen, a live storytelling project created by La Cocina.