Reem Assil Debuts Dyafa in Oakland
Dyafa brings Arabic hospitality to Jack London Square.
Shakriyah—comprised of braised lamb shank, garlic yogurt, Arabic rice, almonds, and gremolata—is a Dyafa specialty.
Photos by Connor Bruce Photography
Chickpea pancakes may not solve the world’s woes, but they make a good start for both dinner and conversation. On our first visit to Dyafa—a Middle Eastern restaurant championing equity along with its meze (Middle Eastern appetizers)—acclaimed chef-owner Reem Assil worked the flattop while managing the multistation kitchen. From a counter perch, we witnessed our za’atar-spiced chickpea crepes crisping. When they seemed destined to char, a tranquil Assil performed a 180 and flipped the perfectly caramelized pancakes, plating them just as our pristine, chilled lamb tartare—dressed with red onions and bulgur—arrived. The warm crepe paired with cool lamb—laced with intentionally burnt cinnamon—was revelatory.
Assil’s rise—from opening Reem’s California, a casual café in the shadow of the Fruitvale BART station, to partnering with Daniel Patterson, one of the Bay Area’s premier chefs and restaurateurs—was as rapid as it was welcome.
Formerly Patterson’s Haven, a great eatery that never quite found its niche, Dyafa welcomes guests into wooden chairs with turquoise, turmeric, and aubergine seat cushions as vivid as the house’s pickle plate. Haven’s Mediterranean flair—marked by a wood-frame ceiling interlaced with living grapevines—remains, while vibrant mosaic floor tiles add Middle Eastern dazzle. The ambience serves as a lovely complement to Jack London Square’s water views, especially on summer nights, when a short stroll on the promenade before or after dinner should be mandatory.
From refined tapas (such as shimmering stuffed squid) to family-style entrées (including spicy, whole roasted fish), the menu is compatible with all of Dyafa’s libations and dining areas: red wine at the exhibition-kitchen counter, sumac-infused Lebanese Pale Ale at the communal tables straddling the floor-to-ceiling windows, or a cinnamon-spiked Le Beirut cocktail on the sleek patio.
Some of the dishes have a California attitude: Our blistered asparagus with sunny fried egg and crispy olive oil pita crumbs came on a pool of spring fava-tinted aioli. Others, such as the mujadarra—a brilliant warm salad of piquant rice and lentils topped with fried onions, cool cucumbers, and house-made yogurt—boast a distinctly authentic character.
The menu derives much of its authority from the Arabic names on display; the mujadarra, for example, is listed under the khodrawat wa nashawiyat (veggies and grains) category. At lunch, where wraps rule the day, the menu gets a little more playful: to wit, a saj named Steph Curry, which is loaded with turmeric-laced veggies and Feta cheese.
Assil, who was raised in a Palestinian-Syrian home, has deep roots in Oakland and has worked at many of its more progressive eateries, including the cooperative Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria. The servers on our visits exhibited a shy air of inexperience, but once you appreciate that Assil—a former community organizer—strives to promote opportunity (something Patterson also champions at his healthy fast-food venture, Locol), the timidity becomes attractive. One of our visits occurred just days after Dyafa’s opening; that, too, might help explain an apparent lack of confidence.
This care for community comes through in a theme that binds together all of Dyafa’s disparate elements: hospitality (the English translation of dyafa). That idea manifests itself most clearly in Assil’s breads. The cooked-to-order flatbread for the wraps and the fresh pita—particularly spectacular when used as a scoop for Assil’s platter of Middle Eastern dips—are as comforting as comfort food gets.
Which brings us back to those chickpea pancakes—made with both love and expertise, and inspired by a desire for a more equitable world.
44 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 250-9491, dyafaoakland.com. Lunch Tues.–Fri., dinner Tues.–Sat.