With bold spices, healthy vegetables and tantalizing flavors and textures that resonate with Bay Area tastes for all things fresh and seasonal, it’s no wonder that Middle Eastern food is having a moment. Offering everything from pita and hummus to foie gras and lobster, it’s a cuisine that spans a wide range of experiences, ingredients and price points. Locally, the latest Middle Eastern bakeries and restaurants are also gaining critical and national attention.
So where and when did the trend begin? Perhaps the answer can be found across the pond, with Ottolenghi, a partnership between a Palestinian and an Israeli chef who introduced London to the flavors of their native Jerusalem. After opening several restaurants, they published a series of cookbooks that quickly became bestsellers. In 2011, while the Ottolenghi books were taking America by storm, Israeli technologist and serial start-up entrepreneur Oren Dobronsky opened his first casual spot, Oren’s Hummus in Palo Alto (261 University Ave., 650.752.6492).
Dobronsky longed for authentic hummus, and he wasn’t afraid to call his food Israeli. For a long time Middle Eastern food was found mostly in delis and hole-in-the-wall spots, and generally referred to as Mediterranean, rather than identified with a country or a more specific region or culture. Oren’s Hummus now has four locations including one in San Francisco (71 3rd St., 415.915.6736). The focal point is rich and creamy hummus that is offered in a variety of styles and with many different toppings—some traditional and some more creative, ranging from braised lamb to mushrooms. The menu also includes other Israeli dishes such as chicken schnitzel, fatush salad and Romanian eggplant, each reflecting the varied heritage of modern Israelis. Dobronsky’s partner and Executive Chef David Cohen explains that the recent popularity of Middle Eastern food is due to the chefs and restaurateurs providing an authentic interpretation of the cuisine. Says Cohen, “It’s become more mainstream because it’s approachable, an inherently healthy cuisine and an enjoyable way to eat.”
Isaac Yosef was another Israeli missing the flavors of home, and in particular baked goods. He recounts his frustration with American bakeries that emphasize sweet rather than savory baked goods. He partnered with another Israeli, a fourth generation baker he serendipitously met at a Hannukah party, to open Frena Bakery (132 6th St., 628.444.3666), offering what he found lacking in the Bay Area, including freshly baked pita bread, challah, delicate and savory filled sambusaks and burekas and Jerusalem style bagels, in addition to jam-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot, traditionally served at Hannukah. The response was extremely positive and the South of Market bakery now sees lots of locals during the week and draws Israelis from all over the Bay Area on Sundays. Because the bakery is kosher, it’s also popular with Muslims who seek out familiar foods, but want something that is equivalent to halal, as well as vegetarians and vegans who find the vast majority of the menu accessible to them. Just as Oren’s Hummus has expanded, Frena Bakery is also expanding with a new cafe-style location in the Richmond (5549 Geary Blvd.).
Yet a third spot to open recently in San Francisco from an Israeli is Sababa (329 Kearny St., 415.800.6853; 554 Commercial St., 415.590.7923). Guy Eshel thought his path would be in fine dining, but after graduating from culinary school and a stint at AQ, he noticed the lack of Middle Eastern food and that no one was using high-quality ingredients. He also says that classic items like falafel are often reheated and not cooked to order. Inspired by made-to-order fresh street food, he is committed to making everything from scratch. Like Yosef, he opened his first shop in 2016 and a second shop in 2017, both of which are located in downtown San Francisco. While his customers may be familiar with hummus, pita and falafel, they are less likely to know sabik, a tantalizing pita sandwich filled with fried eggplant, hard boiled egg, hummus, Israeli salad, cabbage, tahini, pickles and a spicy fermented mango sauce they make in house. Originally he says people didn’t order it but when the word got out it became tremendously popular.
In the East Bay, two Middle Eastern restaurants from star graduate of La Cocina and James Beard-nominated chef Reem Assil are gaining national attention. Assil grew up in a Palestinian-Syrian household and worked for a decade as a community and labor organizer before becoming a restaurant chef and owner. Like Eshel, she was inspired by street food, initially selling her breads at farmers markets. She opened her eponymous bakery Reem’s in 2017 (3301 E. 12th St., Oakland, 510.852.9390) and then Dyafa (44 Webster St., Oakland, 510.250.9491), a more upscale restaurant in 2018. Dyafa showcases the depth and breadth of Arab cuisine spanning from the Levant to North Africa and the influences from different ethnic groups in the region, paying homage to a culture of trading, multiculturalism, warm connection and generosity. Assil explains that the name Dyafa means "hospitality" in Arabic and says her goal is to create “a warm and inviting expe- rience where people are taken care of and leave full in the belly and heart.”
At Dyafa, one of the most notable signature dishes is the whole roasted fish, Samaka Harra. Since the restaurant is located at Jack London Square on the waterfront, she wanted to showcase seafood and re-create the experience of enjoying food in the Middle East. The fish is spiced with a house-blend dry rub and roasted whole. It sits in a bed of lemon tahini sauce that is almost like a healthy beurre blanc and is served with Palestinian couscous and a Gazan tomato cucumber salad and drizzled with a fermented chili and vinegar sauce.
The most recent opening is not really an opening at all, but a significant revamp of a Michelin-starred Michael Mina restaurant (252 California St., 415.397.9222). Mina has reimagined his signature restaurant, returning to his Egyptian roots with a new, six-course Middle Eastern tasting menu. The restaurant kitchen was completely revamped to allow for charcoal- and wood-fired dishes and new dishes rely on proprietary spice blends that are dramatically displayed for guests table side. Other highlights include a relaunch of the caviar service with smoked salt, labneh yogurt, hibiscus and sumac onions, and bread service that includes Egyptian flat bread. Says Mina, “The new menu is a deeply personal move for me. One of my longstanding passions has been to celebrate and pay homage to my Middle Eastern heritage and the style of food that I grew up eating, but in a reinterpreted and elevated way. This desire has been decades in the making.” Two of the most popular menu items that are quickly becoming signatures are the Grilled Maine Lobster and the Glazed Egyptian Mango. The Grilled Maine Lobster is modern and indulgent with saffron, coconut, okra, corn and almond. The Glazed Egyptian Mango features seared foie gras topped delicately with warm glazed Egyptian mango and hints of ginger and spices. The combination of the mango and foie gras, a delicacy whose invention is attributed to the Egyptians, is unique yet original. The dish reflects the past and the creativity of today, something that also describes the food at Oren’s Hummus, Frena, Sababa, Reem’s and Dyafa.