If you had to pick one Bay Area chef-restaurateur whose career trajectory is deserves admiration and further championing, Reem Assil might be the one. A labor organizer who turned to food, she put in time with the worker-owned bakery co-op Arizmendi and the immigrant-focused food-business incubator La Cocina. To realize a vision centered on intensely flavorful Arabic flatbreads with Californian fillings and toppings — and a strong sense of personal warmth — Assil opened a food stand in a community center in South Berkeley a couple years ago.
That led to a stall at the Ferry Building Farmers Market and then, last spring, to Reem’s California, a fast-casual Fruitvale brick-and-mortar. People flock there for treats like orange flower cake and for the sumac-heavy chicken wrap called a Cali Pal — as well as a uniquely welcoming atmosphere. (A sign promises “we’ll still love you if you struggle to pronounce” the Cali Pal’s name in Arabic, man’oushe.)
Accolades poured in. Food & Wine included Reem’s on its 2017 list of Restaurants of the Year, and the James Beard Foundation named Assil as a semifinalist in the category of Best Chef: West. After serving on the advisory board of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United’s racial equity program, she met Daniel Patterson, and the resulting partnership with Patterson’s Alta Group has yielded Dyafa, a 100-plus-seat full-service restaurant in Jack London Square that was formerly Haven.
That’s an impressive streak, on an even more impressive timeline. It’s also the second of three such revamps for Patterson-affiliated establishments, as the original Alta CA in Mid-Market has since become Kaya, a follow-up to Nigel Jones’ Kingston 11, and the Minnesota Street Project location closed in early May to become Besharam, led by Heena Patel.
Hospitality is the art of making perfect strangers feel as welcome as a beloved aunt; it’s also what an oily, cynical hotelier might hold a Bachelor’s degree in. And Assil’s dedication to the first definition is Dyafa’s no. 1 attribute. As is the case with Reem’s California, every visit seems to involve interactions with employees who seem genuinely invested in making sure you enjoy yourself and hope to return.
Underlying that is the concept of home, both in terms of providing one for people who may have migrated away from their places of origin and for drawing in newcomers. The danger of selling quote-unquote ethnic cuisine is exoticization, and it can cut in two directions: Unfamiliar dishes can be fetishized for how cheap they are, or else the entire package sacrifice authenticity to appeal to people always on the hunt for a flashy novelty. Assil bypasses all of that.
The avenue is the food, of course. Start off lunch with a $15 mezze sampler and convince any companion to share a flight of rosé ($17 for four two-ounce pours) while you use the pillowy, oven-fresh pita to sneak away with all the labneh wa ful, a thick, strained a yogurt that’s as tangy as triple-cream mascarpone. (A full dinner portion is obligatory, with a comforting order of pita.) The mutabbal, a smokier cousin to baba ghanoush, was the runner-up. Pair the whole thing with an Escudo Real 2017 vinho verde — and for dinner, there’s a Riesling flight that spans an even wider range of its varietal’s breadth.
Among the wraps from the saj, or grill, the kefta burger ($14) stood out for its presentation — rolled up in flatbread, not between buns. Spiced and enrobed in juicy parsley with plenty of tahini, it’s not cooked to order but it has an appeal approaching that of a — sadly hypothetical — imperial roll burrito. There’s almost no heat, but there’s plenty of chew.
A fattoush ($11), essentially a little gem salad with fried pitas that function as a sort of wonton crouton variant, was notable mostly as a counterpoint to all the wraps; it’s there if you need the lightly dressed greens. While the mujadarra ($14) had the subtle pleasure of cucumber-and-yogurt rice pilaf, the raisins felt a bit discordant to a couple dining companions. Instead, the spot-on salatet bakleh ($12), a plate of purslane, bulgur, and asparagus was the best bet, heated up by the addition of chicken for five dollars and cooled down with mint and more yogurt.
Asparagus shows up again in the haliyoon, a remarkable dish composed with pita crisps, fava green aioli, and fried egg. Cauliflower and eggplant carry the Steph Curry ($12), another wrap with plenty of feta and the satisfaction of a wrap that aims primarily for flavor and also notches high nutritional marks. The simplicity belies its significance; why hasn’t this been done before? Ponder that one over a glass of Damascus lemonade deepened by orange-blossom water and mint ($6).
The dinner menu essentially subsumes lunch, especially in the the za’atar mana’eesh ($6) become available. Middle Eastern cocktails sound almost like a contradiction in terms, but the Bint al Shalabeeya (brandy, fig, pistachio, yogurt, and cinnamon, $13) uses the yogurt’s tang as a racquetball wall for the fig to bounce off of without turning the whole thing into a milkshake. The Mexi-Pali, no relation to that Cali Pal at Reem’s, somehow manages to incorporate za’atar, tamarind, and beet juice into something refreshing and not at all medicinal (or like you’re on a tacky cruise of the Nile). Topped with a dome of crushed ice, it’s lovely to look at.
If Assil is capable of making deceptively simple-looking dishes burst with flavor, the opposite is also occasionally true. A plate of hibaar mahshi (squid stuffed with freekah, za’atar, and the cilantro-based Yemeni cousin to pesto known as zhoug, $15) looked like beautiful little overfilled amphorae of grains, but the whole thing was surprisingly subtle — except for the tentacle portions, which had charred enough to acquire a dark mystery. The same applied to the shakriyah, a $36 braised lamb shank sitting atop a bed of rice mixed with garlic yogurt and gremolata. Slathered in enough almond slivers to conceal the entire thing, it was a play on osso buco — although too mild.
But damn if it isn’t pleasant to eat such dishes outside, facing the water and Alameda beyond. Haven’s ceiling-concealing branches have been reworked to include what looks like floating planters, and the floor has been tiled in blue, a ka-POW element in an interior that’s otherwise trim and understated.
Assil’s path hasn’t been without controversy. An electrifying mural on the wall of Reem’s California depicts a smiling Rasmea Odeh, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent who is seen as a freedom fighter to many Arabs and, for her role in a 1969 bombing in Jerusalem that killed two people and injured several more, as a terrorist by many Israelis and Jews. Convicted and imprisoned, Odeh claimed to have been tortured; later freed as part of a prisoner exchange, she moved to the U.S. and eventually took American citizenship only to have it revoked after accusations of immigration fraud led to another trial. (Odeh was ultimately deported to Jordan last September.)
Denounced here and there online, Assil and her restaurant were subsequently the target of a Yelp campaign designed to destroy their reputations. Unquestionably, emotions run hot and tribal affiliations are strong when it comes to any facet of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it’s a testament to the shifting landscape in the food world when a woman of Middle Eastern descent is evaluated on the merits without being dismissed out of hand — and the lamb, pomegranate, and pine nut turnovers at Reem’s California still sell out all the time. Dyafa is free of any potential provocations, the food and service are wonderful, and hopefully the cuisine of the Levant can now take its rightful place.
Dyafa, 44 Webster St., Oakland, 510-250-9491 or dyafaoakland.com