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Chowdown Report: Halal Easter @ Café Zitouna (SF)

Melanie Wong | Apr 11, 200801:53 PM

Once upon a time, a report from “Malik” on secret Tunisian restaurants in San Francisco,
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/32709 , introduced me to the wonders of brique al'ouef. Sadly none of these spots are still cooking and I wondered when I would have this Tunisian specialty again.

Fast forward a couple years, “pane” tips us to a cabbie’s rec for the new Café Ya Bon. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/42239... Not too impressed with my first visit, nothing bad, just that what I happened to order was not compelling. However, it did give me a chance to ask the owner to consider adding brique (also spelled breek or brik) to the snack menu.

Then a couple months ago, I read that Ya Bon was renamed Café Zitouna. Under the same ownership, it would focus on offering full meals and more food options. Time to go back, I thought, and even more of an imperative when I spotted “breek” on the on-line menu.

At Zitouna, the breek is filled with a tiny dice of potatoes, a little tuna, fresh herbs, and a whole egg. The egg starts out raw and is cooked in the deep-frying process. The pastry is pulled in-house. I asked for my egg cooked “soft”, and the first one turned out a little too runny. Now I just leave it to the cooks to make it their way, which is just right for me, meaning still a little custardy in the middle of the yolk. I love the contrast of the shatteringly crispy golden sheets of pastry against the softness of the egg.

The lentil soup tastes much the same to me, maybe a little richer near the end of the day as it cooks down. I’ve learned to add a little salt, some olive oil, a spoonful of the awesome harissa, and a squeeze of lemon to perk it up.

When Malik, now a citizen of the world, contacted me that he’d be in San Francisco, we tried to pick a place to meet for brunch away from the Easter crowds. A halal restaurant seemed like a good hide-out. And, of course, I was interested in getting his take on the couscous and the housemade merguez at Zitouna. David (“The Mad Russian”) joined us for this chowdown.

By the time I arrived after church, David had already polished off his shakshouka, so I missed tasting it, but he gave it his stamp of approval. Malik and I shared the breek, and the yolk was set enough that it only oozed a little when cut in half, and was easy to eat out of hand with the cut side up. A little lemon and a dab of harissa made it sing.

We split an order of lamb tajine with artichoke hearts and olives and couscous with merguez. The tajine was light and bright, but could have used a little more depth of long-cooking. The grilled merguez for our couscous were served on the side, and the owner cautioned us to eat them while they’re still hot. Made with all lamb, the sausages had a nice spicing and these were quite lean. Juicier when hot, they seemed a little drier once they cooled. Also, the artificial casings became sort of tough as they cooled, so best to pop ‘em down quickly. Malik praised the brothy, delicate broth for the couscous. Light and not overly thickened like too many examples out there, it was full of garbanzos and well-cooked root vegetables and complicated with lamb-y notes. Quite ethereal, the tasty broth and veggies complimented and didn’t weigh down the fluffy grains of couscous.

With our meal with enjoyed a pot of mint tea. It is pre-sweetened, but not at full traditional sweetness level and one might want to add more sugar. For dessert we had the baklawa. Again, the pastry is pulled each day and the extra freshness shines. Also unique is the thick layer of pulverized nuts in the center, similar to some Indian sweets.

We were especially taken with the very spicy harissa, the North African-style red chili sauce. Malik commented that it must be housemade and beats out the French brands used by Parisian couscousiers. He spoke to the owner in French, hoping to buy a container of it to take home. The owner was quite apologetic that he didn’t have enough to spare, as it takes six hours to prepare a batch. Yet with our check, he offered up a small amount of the magic condiment to-go. We much appreciated this gesture of hospitality.

The space is still a bit cramped but is more open than before. The bare girders and big windows fill the room with light and the window bench and bistro chairs make for comfortable seating. We whiled away nearly three hours here with our meal and nursing our tea with no pressure to move on. We agreed that this was a place to return to for inexpensive homestyle cooking in a pleasant and relaxing space.

Dave MP’s report on Café Zitouna -

Cafe Zitouna
1201 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94109

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