As a former London expat who loves – and still misses – the cooking of Yotam Ottolenghi, the recently opened Tawla in San Francisco’s Mission District really hit the spot. Google exec-turned-restaurateur Azhar Hashem focuses on the foods of her native Jordan, with influences from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Iran too. This is not your typical falafel, kebabs and hummus affair, but rather a carefully curated collection of made-to-order bread and less-well-known dishes such as samakeh harrah ($55 for two) – oven-roasted rockfish with spicy walnut and pepper stuffing, served with tahini and fresh pomegranates.
My dinner at Tawla was a delight from start to finish. By the time we arrived at 6.30pm the place was already humming and we were whisked to the back patio to wait for our table, people-watch – tech types and Californian creatives – and sample local Bon Vivants craft cocktails. I’d recommend the Haleeb Bil Hail, a sublime combination of Carpano Antica vermouth, cardamom, milk, pineapple, mango and lime.
Inside, the design-led 66-seat room is vibrant and inviting, with Arabesque-etched glass, sleek wood surfaces and living walls of greenery setting the stage for chef Joseph Magidow’s inventively modernised regional specialities using the freshest Californian ingredients. The starter bread ($3) was a real highlight paired with various mezes: aubergine musaka ($14), charred cauliflower with tahini, garlic and lemon ($14) and fattoush salad (a must here because of the date vinaigrette; $13). These were followed by equally tasty sharing plates of burnt octopus ($19) with just a hint of grapefruit, and a delicate piece of halibut with white lentils and oregano ($30).
Tawla’s wine selection is equally impressive, overseen by master sommelier Garret Nakamura, formerly of Jean-Georges in New York. We opted for a light, crisp Chateau Musar Jeune Blanc ($62 a bottle) from Lebanon that greatly complemented our seafood and vegetable-centric meal, but the range is vast: from sparkling northern Californian varieties to “old-world pours that show a Moorish influence”. All adding to this fun, interactive dining experience.