Chef Reem Assil Highlights Arab Food in Oakland 

If you haven’t heard of Chef Reem Assil, you really should as she is successfully putting Arab food on the map in Oakland. Her Arab street food started in the farmers markets before she opened her bakery, Reem’s in the Fruitvale Public Market over a year ago. She recently opened her second outpost, Dyafa, a full service restaurant in Jack London Square.

Chef Assil specializes in mana’eesh which is a middle eastern flatbread. My favorite is having it topped with oil and za’atar, a herb and spice mixture of wild thyme, sesame, sumac, and salt. I’ve noticed the growing popularity of za’atar all around the country. You can get the mana’eesh at either the bakery or the restaurant. The bread is more like pizza than pita, but much thinner and crispier. The brushed on oil keeps the herbs, spices, and flavors intact.

Reem’s offers a nice mezze combination platter which come with four spreads to dip the freshly baked pita bread. My top dips were the labneh, a thick tangy yogurt that tastes like the most delicious cream cheese and the muhammara, which is made with roasted red peppers and walnuts.  
Brunch is available on weekends at Reem’s and that provided me with the opportunity to try their shakshuka, eggs poached in spiced red pepper tomato sauce, topped with feta and parsley. The sauce was rich and smokey and I was happy it was served with pita bread.
Another special item they offer is cardamom ice coffee. I just love the flavor of cardamom. This is the perfect summer morning beverage that I should consider worthy of a short detour on my way to work.
I was really excited about the opening of Dyafa. I was a bit nervous about dining there because I was taking my best friend there for her birthday and I got some mixed reviews. Nonetheless I knew we had to form our own opinions.

We ordered some dips to go with our order of mana’eesh. The cold one was the muttabbal which is charred eggplant, lemon, and tahini. It was a nice simple starter.
The warm dip we selected was the hummus kawarma which is hummus with spiced lamb, dried lime, and cured sumac. The unique flavors and the warmth of it made this hummus stand out.
We also shared a fresh salad of arugula, little gem lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and radish. This tasted fine, but we probably could have done without it.
We shared the maklouba as our main course which was layered rice, roasted eggplant, cauliflower, charred tomato, and topped with potato chips. I enjoyed this vegetarian dish very much. Each ingredient is formed and packed tightly and together the components offered wonderful rich bites.  
For dessert, we wanted something light so we shared the booza, which is an orange blossom ice cream with crispy phyllo and candied orange. The orange flavor was nice to end a meal with and the phyllo nest provided a fun crispy texture.  
My opinion is that Chef Reem Assil makes Oakland a better place by bringing delicious Arab food to the community. I would recommend Reem’s for a casual lunch and Dyafa if you are looking to enjoy a nice dinner. 

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Soba Ichi: The Soba Experience

If ramen, udon, and soba noodles were siblings, soba would be the middle child. Soba noodles don’t get a lot of attention in the United States. I can’t count the number of bowls of ramen and udon that I have consumed in my lifetime because it is too many. I can count with one hand the number of times I have eaten soba and it was probably dried soba produced in Japan. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and there are no restaurants in the Bay Area that specializes in fresh soba until now. Soba Ichi recently opened in West Oakland giving “The Town” another thing to brag about.  

Chef Koichi Ishii is the man behind the soba. The soba is freshly prepared everyday from scratch in house, by hand by grinding buckwheat flour in a stone mill. They get their supply of buckwheat from Kitawase in Washington State. The demand has been exceeding the soba production as it seems they are consistency selling out before lunch ends.

My colleague and I went to Soba Ichi last week and we arrived twenty five minutes before they opened to ensure we were part of the first seating. I wanted to start with one of their small plates and chose the nameko oroshi-ae which was a mushroom and daikon dish. It was definitely small, but size was not an indication of flavor. The mushrooms were rich and earthy and combined well with the finely grated daikon.
Soba Ichi offers both hot and cold soba. My colleague and I both opted for the Jyuwari soba which is 100% buckwheat versus the Nihachi soba which is 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour. Our noodles are available cold and we ordered it with tempura. I was excited when my tray came out as it instantly transplanted me to Japan. (I haven’t been but this is what I imagine it to be like).  

I prepared my dipping sauce by adding the daikon and green onions to the soy based sauce. I opted out of the wasabi but added some chili powder instead. Using my chopsticks, I picked up a few noodles and plunged them into the sauce. The soba was light, clean, earthy, and slightly chewy. 

The shrimp and vegetable tempura came with what looked like a matcha salt to season. This was the best tempura I have ever had, especially the shrimp. I kept alternating between the soba and the tempura. It was a perfect match.  
When we were done, the server brought out a teapot filled with broth that we were supposed to add to the remaining dipping sauce to drink. It was warm and good for the soul. This actually helped fill me up.
I didn’t want my lunch to end so I ordered the dessert which was sobacha mousse. The tea flavor was nice and it had both jelly and custard topped with rice crispies.  
What appears and tastes like a simple meal at Soba Ichi is quite complicated. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the experience. Although I was treating myself to a pretty expensive lunch, I knew I was paying for a labor of love.  

Gangnam Tofu in El Cerrito has lots of Style

I just got back from a fabulous dinner. I had Korean food with my BFF in El Cerrito. She was introducing me to Gangnam Tofu for the first time. We went for an early dinner after spending the day hiking and geocaching in the area.

We were lucky that we didn’t have a wait since there was room for the two of us at the counter. I consider my BFF my food twin as we typically like the same things and can easily agree on menu items.

Like other Korean restaurants, we received a series of banchan. Unlike other Korean restaurants, I’ve never had one with eggplant. It was also the most delicious one! If we didn’t order so much food, I would’ve requested another serving of the eggplant.

We ordered the Soon-Doo-Boo which is the soft tofu stew. This dish comes in nine varieties. We ordered the original Soon-Doo-Boo with pork. It comes with a raw egg to crack into the bubbling stew. I enjoyed the medium spiced tofu stew and consider it one of the Korean dishes that defines comfort especially when you add a little white rice.


I can never resist fried chicken and wanted to give it a shot. They have nine types of fried chicken and we agreed to have the original which is the dry kind. It was crispy and finger licking good. Our half order was cut up into seven similarly sized pieces. This makes perfect sense so the fry time is the same and makes for juicy pieces including the white meat.

We also ordered the Beef Dol Sop Bop which is marinated beef and vegetables over rice that is cooked in a hot stone bowl. The veggies included carrots, spinach, zucchini, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and green onions. It was also topped with a fried egg. As I mixed everything together, I could hear the sizzling. I was impressed by the cook of the rice in the stone bowl as it left a full even layer of crispy rice on the bottom.

I was also impressed with the customer service at Gangnam Tofu. The staff are extremely friendly and we were asked on several occasions whether we needed anything, a first time for me at any Asian restaurant. Even with all the Korean food options in Oakland, I left the restaurant thinking about my next meal here.