Dyafa Exceeds Expectations
Reem Assil’s newest venture brings complex and nuanced Arab fine dining to Jack London Square with attention to diversity and accessibility.
The complex, nuanced dishes at Dyafa include spicy zidbiyit gambari.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
When a dish as seemingly simple as hummus becomes a supernatural dining experience, you know there’s a story behind it. At Dyafa — the new Arab-cuisine restaurant operated in Jack London Square by Reem Assil in partnership with Daniel Patterson — there are many. “Hummus” is Arabic for chickpea, but the word is commonly applied to the dip made with cooked and mashed chickpeas blended with tahini. The Arabic name is hummus bi tahini. At Dyafa, Assil makes hummus kawarma ($16), redolent with dried lime and cured sumac and topped with a patty of crispy, spicy, chopped lamb, browned on the plancha. It is best enjoyed with Dyafa’s fabulous freshly baked pita ($3), served warm. Since the restaurant inaugurated dinner service in April, the hummus has become the most popular item on a menu, Assil told me in a phone conversation after I’d made one lunch and two dinner visits. That’s saying something given that the menu is loaded with equally astounding hot and cold mezze (small plates), suhoon (large plates), and saj wa furun (specialty breads from the saj or domed griddle and hearth), all intended to share in bountiful feasts.
Assil’s reputation preceded her when she opened Dyafa: Her bakery in Fruitvale Village, Reem’s California, had been named one of the 10 best U.S. restaurants by Food & Wine magazine, and Assil was a James Beard Award finalist for best chef in the West. She had become as well known for her social activism (she was a community organizer before going to baking school) as for her cooking. As the late Anthony Bourdain argued, food is politics, and Assil’s partnership with Patterson arose out of philosophical conversations they had as members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United advisory board. Assil felt they were “aligned in vision and values,” especially when it came to bringing diversity and community accessibility to fine dining, and Patterson can occasionally be spotted helping out in the kitchen.
Photo by lance Yamamoto
Dyafa is in the former Haven space in Jack London Square.
With a loyal following ready to pack into Dyafa, business was good from the get-go. The major challenge, amplified by Assil giving birth to her son just a month before opening, was to maintain the momentum and make the transition to “casual fine dining” in the 105-seat space — with a full bar, lounge, patio, and broad open kitchen — that had been home to Haven, one of the several restaurants in Patterson’s Alta Group.
Reem’s is “a bakery at heart,” Assil said, founded on the tradition of the corner bakery that serves as a community hub in the Arab world. Assil, who got her start at farmers markets and pop-ups and with the La Cocina food-business incubator, developed the Reem’s menu around the Lebanese flatbread man’oushe. Flatbread is essential at Dyafa, as well — it wraps around spicy chicken, beef, and vegetables at lunch, and at dinner, as mana’eesh ($6), it is topped with za’atar and olive oil or haloumi, green garlic, and fresh herbs. Assil might joke about Arab wraps becoming “the next burrito,” but Dyafa is where she expands her vision, from cooking “Arab street food made with California love” to elevating dishes from the heritages of her Palestinian mom and Syrian dad. In Dyafa’s colorfully decorated waterfront setting (check out the vines, branches, and planter boxes worked into the open ceiling), she showcases the cultural diversity of the Levant, reverses the “invisibilization” of Palestinian food, and challenges the homogenization of “Middle Eastern” and “Mediterranean” cuisine.
Photo by lance yamamoto
Reem Assil operates Dyafa in partnership with Daniel Patterson.
Assil proudly uses Arabic names on the Dyafa menu. There’s zidbiyit gambari — a clay pot of shrimp, tomato, peppers, coriander, chickpeas; haliyoon — blistered asparagus, fava green aioli, pita crumbs, fried egg; kibeeh nayyeh — lamb tartare, bulgur, red onion, burnt cinnamon; musakhan — sumac-spiced chicken confit; hibaar mahshi — stuffed squid; and samaka harra — spicy whole roasted fish. And Assil makes sure the servers are steeped in the cultural origins of the dishes and their ingredients.
When Robin and I made our first dinner visit, that training was evident when our server delivered in-depth descriptions of the breads (we ate both mana’eesh and two servings of pita) and dishes we ordered: the creamy labheh wa ful (yogurt, snap peas, flowering coriander), the baba ghanoush-like mutabbal (charred eggplant, lemon, tahini), the zidbiyit gambari, and the shakriyah ($36, a huge, fork-tender lamb shank resting on a bed of rice with a tantalizing garlic yogurt sauce and smothered in gremolata, sliced almonds, and toasted garlic slivers.) At our second dinner, it was our server’s first night, and he still had some catching up to do, both in familiarity with ingredients and timing. But like everyone we encountered at Dyafa, he exuded hospitality, which is what dyafa means, and which is one of Assil’s highest priorities.
At that second dinner, with Arabic music not too loud in the background, we ate muhammara ($11, a cold dip of roasted red pepper, walnut, and pomegranate; the aforementioned hummus kawarma; maklouba ($26), a dish of rice layered with roasted eggplant, cauliflower, and charred tomatoes, topped with house-made potato chips that stayed crisp; and kenafeh ($10, a stunning dessert of sweet mozzarella curd, crunchy shredded phyllo, orange blossom, apricots, and pistachios). (Beware, however: All the plates you might want to share don’t fit easily on the tables for two.)
Lists of ingredients can’t communicate the precision of techniques used to put them together, or the complexities and nuances of their interactions. Assil touts the flexibility of Arab food, which allows her to play and experiment and come up with magical dishes like that perfectly cooked, spectacularly presented lamb shank, a masterwork of refined comfort food with several complementary plot lines of flavor. Those qualities of subtlety, complexity, and sophistication were echoed again and again — most surprisingly, perhaps, in Alta Group beverage director Aaron Paul’s cocktails, which incorporate sumac, za’atar, pistachio, fig, and other ingredients from Arab cookbooks. On paper, they look too fussy to succeed, but Robin was bedazzled by the Dark-Skinned Nightingale, made with rum, medjool date, almond, coconut, and egg white, and I would have a hard time deciding next time between the Le Beirut (rye, clarified milk, cinnamon, walnut, and lemon) and the Dabke on the Moon (mezcal, tequila, strawberry, cumin, and a sprig of cilantro atop a snow-cone scoop of ice). Six Lebanese and Palestinian versions of the anise-y spirit arak are available as a digestif, and the Arak Sour with gin, noyeaux, lime, and egg white.
Dyafa, already one of Oakland’s best restaurants, will continue to evolve in the coming months, with weekend brunch and a prix fixe dinner option in the works. I can’t wait to see how these stories play out.
Middle Eastern & Mediterranean. 44 Webster St., Oakland, 510-250-9491. Serves lunch Tue.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner Tue.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. DyafaOakland.com, $$$–$$$$