Anyone who has a well-thumbed and stained copy of Plenty and Plenty More and Jerusalem, who knows their musaka from their maqluba and mujadara, will really enjoy poring over the extensive menu at ~TAWLA~, an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant in the Mission. And even if you don’t know these dishes, you definitely will remember their names after you try them.
First-time restaurant owner Azhar Hashem is Jordanian and left her tech job at Google to properly represent the cooking of where she was raised. Lucky us. So she brought on chef Joseph Magidow (formerly of Delfina) to create an enticing menu that spans the Eastern Mediterranean (think Greece, Turkey, Iran, and the Levant—Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan), with some seasonal and Northern Californian influences, because that’s how we roll here. It’s pointedly a falafel- and hummus- and kebab-free zone, so plan on the next level of the Med playbook.
You can come here with your vegetarian friend and your gluten-free friend and your lamb-loving pal, and everyone will be happy at the table together. Start with the puffy and golden bread—which is like pita’s wild cousin, with za’atar in its hair—with its glistening sheen and wheat bran crust, and use it to scoop up three labnehs ($7) and the ful medames ($6), like creamy Egyptian refried beans, but made with favas.
I was lucky to dine here at the end of summer, with peak-of-ripeness figs and tomatoes from the Peach Farm in Winters making their way into such beautiful cold meze; it took me back to my past September vacations in Greece and Turkey. And then there was the unbearably delicious eggplant maqluba ($25), a type of rustic and homey mini casserole of rice and tomato, served with its deliciously dark and burnished crust exposed, and topped with zucchini chips. One of the best dishes I ate this year. Period.
Fortunately the charred cauliflower ($15) will remain a constant, which strikes that rare balance of being tender but not mushy, zhooshed with tahini, garlic, and lemon. Another mainstay is the allspice chicken ($26), a juicy leg quarter and breast, deeply painted with a flurry of allspice and kicking it on a bed of saucy sumac onions. The Persian fish stew ($30) was gorgeous (!), as my friend yelled out, with succulent black cod, plump clams and mussels, and a tremendous tamarind-spiked broth you wanted to sop up, but it disappeared a bit too quickly for the price.
Mom’s recipe for the muhallabia ($8) milk pudding was oh-so-carefully duplicated, so pretty with its enchanting perfume of orange blossom water and candied pistachio on top. I keep waiting for some beautiful teas to show up on the menu here, but not yet. Fortunately the wine list is en fuego with by-the-glass options, and check out their low-ABV creations too.
It’s definitely worth mentioning the bill will automatcially include 20 percent gratuity, so there’s no pesky math to figure out at the end. Like the menu says, it’s to “offer our entire staff better wages and full benefits.”
The space is a tricky one: it’s narrow, loud, and has uneven lighting. You’ll want to have the address if you’re coming the first time; it’s so dark from the outside that you can walk right by it. These elements are a bit off, but there are so many playful components that will catch your eye, like the display of Turkish çay/teacups, a robin’s-egg blue wall, the trellis of vines in the back room, the vibrant colors and patterns and tiles throughout, the fun and funky furnishings and lighting, and the charming back patio.
I will say this: Tawla has the nicest, friendliest, kindest servers I have encountered in ages. Beyond huggable. They build up such a sincere feeling of hospitality. It’s what we need more of right now. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an arm pat from the warm and lovely proprietress too. She wants you to feel like you’re in her home. You will feel graciously fed, and the menu will keep you coming back for the next game (the name is Arabic for “backgammon,” which you can play outside on the back patio while waiting for a table).
This review was based on two visits.