There aren't too many islands off of California, and apart from a few marine animals — salmon and oysters, mainly — California cuisine looks away from the coast toward the interior, however artificially verdant and unsustainable that agricultural juggernaut may be. Tawla, a terrific new restaurant on the northern end of Valencia Street, imagines the Golden State as if it were an island off the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, even though you'd have to place it very carefully to avoid creating a tsunami or squashing Crete and Cyprus.
The attention falls away from the better-known delights — no couscous to be found — and toward the deep cuts. Cold and warm meze (i.e., small plates, from a region where they're intrinsic to the cuisine) populate the menu almost to the exclusion of all else, meaning a meal at Tawla is an adventure without being overly challenging. More to the point, virtually everything I ate was high in acid, so even those rare dishes with flaws are still intensely flavorful.
Things start off with an amuse of sour plums in salt, which aren't so much delicious in their own right as a means of getting your mouth R-E-A-D-Y ready for everything that follows. One must-have is the kibbeh niyyeh, a somewhat-less-than-gorgeous patty of raw lamb sirloin with bulgur, pine nuts, onion, and mint ($18). A mix of allspice, cumin, and pepper brings it to life, and a good amount of olive oil keeps it going. Eating it with an order of bread is obligatory. Because I love the texture of fava beans, I was initially disappointed that the ful medames ($14) arrived as a thick puree and not whole — but that faded once I tasted the whispers of lightly pickled onion and the dark, luscious yolk of the two quarters of a Jidori-style egg. Some dishes just have an alchemy, and this is one.
Whether coincidental or not, a bowl of complimentary pickles arrived just as we were hip-deep in those rich dishes, and the musaka ($14) pushed the acid quotient higher still. The blistered eggplant could have used a bit of salt, but the char was flawless and the whole thing looked like a giant oyster with the toppings of a Grandma pizza. For what it's worth, cherry tomatoes are something I almost never enjoy, but these were little flavor bullets (and, being oven-softened, didn't explode in my mouth. In hindsight, I wish I'd taken the server's strong suggestion to order the Early Girl tomatoes with za'atar and marinated feta, too.)
A big bowl of mussels ($14) was pillowy and soft, not the least bit chewy, and garlanded with slivers of garlic. They're vehicles for their peppery, saffron-and-lemon broth, which is no surprise, and after a little roundabout interrogation as to whether anyone else had ever asked, I got the server to put the uneaten broth in a to-go container and carried it home with me, where I ate it with bread a day or two later. Unfortunately, the octopus ($19) seemed to have absorbed whatever rubberiness the mussels might have carried. I liked the bitter dandelions and the pickled mango, but that texture was hard to overlook. When the mackerel lakerda ($15) arrived, it occurred to me that we'd ordered way too much seafood, but only in the sense that a little bit of palate fatigue meant some things would necessarily be overshadowed. A lakerda is a preserved fish preparation involving a lot of salt and olive oil, not unlike the anchovies in Spanish boquerones, and while these were flecked with bits of roasted pepper, it was still an oily fish packed in oil. Some chicken would have been a fine idea, but apart from wings, there was none.
Because we're used to the quote-unquote main course being the climax of a meal, the phenomenon of large-format mains is occasionally hard to handle. Tawla goes as far as a $140 leg of lamb for four, but our server noted that the halibut molokhia ($30) was more of an ilna (entree) than a meze, so that's what we went with. Again, this comment is qualified by my penchant for over-ordering the fruits of the sea, but as pale poached fish wrapped in mallow leaves, it looked more like a big dolma, and the fermented chile and coriander fumet were hard to tease out.
A note on the beverages: Tawla lacks a full liquor license, and while the wine list is solid enough — the server's recommendation of a glass of Verdicchio as “ridic-chio” was spot-on — there are also a few $14, low-ABV cocktails. Two of them, The Persian Royale and the A Date to Remember, could not have been more dissimilar. Although full of strawberry and pomegranate, the former is crisp and bright, while the latter has a pleasant syrupy quality that's pierced by a lemon peel. Each is well worth trying.
Otherwise, the incidentals are largely but not entirely in place. Tawla's designers nailed the lighting, which falls into the sweet spot between Instagrammable and intimate, and the overall vibe is warm in spite of being firmly in the industrial mold. (Mission Cheese feels roughly similar.) There's also a wall screen made of clean lines that transitions into a wine rack that kept catching my eye. But Tawla doesn't have very good flow, and a high-traffic spot for shuttling plates out of the open kitchen is very close to a couple of tables. Even if you're the second two-top in from the action, all the coming-and-going above a seated person's eye level is still an almost-constant distraction. The metal chairs grate against the tile floor in a nails-on-chalkboard way that approximates the sound of an F-Market rounding the tight curve at 17th and Market streets (in timbre, not volume). Prices feel high, and Tawla's menu could do a better job announcing that it's a service-inclusive restaurant — while I'm personally agnostic on the no-tipping trend, confronting inflated dollar amounts while ordering does seem to get under a lot of people's skin. There's also a small backyard that's sitting idle for the time being, and while there's no grave harm in letting a concrete garden lay fallow while a restaurant gets itself together, it's very visible from the rear half of the dining room.
Tawla is not only a new restaurant on Valencia Street, it's a new restaurant space altogether; nothing preceded it. Valencia has corpses now, from the ill-conceived behemoth Amber Dhara to the stubbornly unsuccessful Plin/Nostra Spaghetteria concept just down the block. I think the flushed-cheek raucousness that Brasserie St. James embodies is one model for a successful venture in an oversaturated dining corridor, but maybe Tawla represents another. (It definitely won't generate as many Ubers in the bike lane.) Quieter, leaner, and lower in alcohol, it's something that hasn't appeared on Valencia in any numbers for a while now: a strong neighborhood restaurant with a well-executed conceit.