Tawla opened up this weekend and two of us dropped in for a try last night. I have long awaited an authentic middle-eastern restaurant to refresh my memories of the amazing food we had in Syria, before the catastrophe. The reports that the owner Azhar Hashem, new to the restaurant business and an escapee from the tech world, was aiming for Middle-Eastern 2.0, got me excited. None of the traditional American expectations like (overly cumin) hummus and (dried out) shish kebabs and (soggy pre cooked) falafel were to be on the menu.
I think Azhar has succeeded. She reminds me of Pim and Kin Khao in her approach and her intentions to bring really authentic examples of her native cuisine to America and San Francisco. Like Pim she has brought in a first class chef with experience at great local restaurants (Manresa for Kin Khao and Locanda/Delfina for Tawla). And like Pim she has provided the knowledge and recipes and love and energy that has put their respective cuisines among the top in the world.
There was one rather amusing hitch at the start. I had received the following text from Resy:
“You're due at Tawla in an hour. Protip: Get started with our bread that's made to order and the muhammara. That will get your appetite going.”’
Well, that was a no-brainer as I had already heard that muhammara was on the menu and I have been dreaming of good muhammara from a first revelatory experience in Aleppo in 2009 and finding only just-OK versions in SF supermarkets. So on sitting down at the beautiful marble counter, I asked for the bread and muhammara. But soon learned that there was none that night (pomegranate market fail, I believe). Tears swelled up and we ordered the Three Labnahs (yogurt based dips with varied home made spicings) and Ful Madames (marvelous fave beam dip) to go with the bread.
Azhar came over and we discussed the Syria tragedy, middle eastern food, and her plans. At the end she said to tell her of any problems with the meal — so I said Resy texted me to have the muhammara and … boo hoo. She took pity and talked to her chef who was preparing a batch for the next night. We got a sample, and yes it was like Aleppo, home of the incredible pomegranate and walnut dip. Like a Proustian madeleine it brought memories back of the first experience in an old house in the Jewish Quarter (yes, there once was one) of Aleppo.
There were no more “hitches”. Service was at a very high level. Amazing for the second night open everything was firing on all cylinders. Staff is very knowledgable and experienced. Kitchen paced items smoothly. A peek into the window 10 days ago suggested that it wouldn’t be open until September. I don’t know how they pulled this off.
The next dishes we had were the Kibbeh Niyyeh made of raw lamb, pine nuts and bulgur, a classic tatar like dish, here perfectly balanced. One could sense in the flavor of the meat the effort Azhar made to find the best local lamb (ask and she will tell you how many tens of samples she tried), And the Pistachio Meatballs, another Aleppo dish based on 3 meats, beef, pork and lamb with a phenomenal crimson raison/cherry sweet sour sauce. I am not known for liking meatballs and this, as my wife M said, could be a start of new things.
Our neighbors were having the Musakhan, an amazing looking chicken dish with a dark roasted skin that is on the next-visit list. They were too busy devouring it to say much beyond “very good”. There is also a large spicy walnut stuffed fish on the menu for at least two persons, better for a large table if you are trying out mezzes. And boy I want to try the Leg of Lamb for Four/three sauces (probably need 6 -8 for that one), $160.
A light thickened milk pudding called Mahalabia (sp?) was a perfect ending, similar to a panna cotta.
The interior design is nicely done and three cheers for the no-tipping policy. Prices are medium upscale with a meal for two like ours (with 2 draught beers each) costing $135, appropriate given the service, decor and design, and cooking.
So nice that there have been so many new places recently that one can praise for their bringing new experiences to the otherwise copy-cat SF restaurant scene. Tawla joins Liholiho, Cala, 1601, and Mister Jius in getting this praise from me.