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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Revival Bar & Kitchen: Downtown Berkeley

On a recent weekday night, I had dinner with a friend at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Downtown Berkeley. It was our first time dining there, but we both knew we had been to this location before. Revival has been there for about five years, but before that it was a Restaurant called Downtown.    

The bar was pretty busy when we arrived. I had reservations so we were seated in the main dining area which was less busy at the time. I had a bad taste in my mouth at the start because we were told we couldn’t participate in the happy hour menu unless we were at the bar. I ended up skipping on the cocktail and went straight for a glass of wine to compliment my dinner.  
The menu lists small plates, large plates, sides, and cheeses. After reviewing the menu, we decided to order a bunch of small plates.  
Our first dish was the chopped curly kale caesar salad. I’ve noticed kale salads are becoming popular on menus lately. Revival’s version had kale, quinoa, almonds, fennel, avocado, turnip, romanesco, and pecorino cheese tossed in an anchovy vinaigrette. This beautiful salad was fresh, crispy, and deliciously flavorful. I really enjoyed all the textures. My friend absolutely loved it and tried to get the recipe. The chef told her the key is massaging the kale. 
 Our next dish was the fried soft shell crab. I hardly ever see this on a menu unless I’m at a Japanese restaurant so I wanted to give this a try. The crab was laying on top of a deviled egg sauce, lentils, and mushrooms. The crab was good, but the deviled egg sauce really elevated the dish.  
 We ordered the housemade lamb sausage meatballs. It came with a two bean succotash, green harissa, and smoked habanero honey. These meatballs were quite unique. They were coated, dense, and had exotic flavors.  
 My favorite dish was the spicy mushroom pho flatbread. It had yam purée, housemade ricotta, savoy cabbage slaw, porcini gastrique, fried onion, and serrano chili. The combination of ingredients on this flatbread was perfectly harmonious.   
 For dessert we shared the rhubarb upside down cake which was complimented with a carrot sorbet, puffed black rice, and buttermilk ice cream. This creative plate was really fun and pleasing to the palette.
 At the end of dinner the Warriors game was coming to an end so we moved to the bar to watch the last few minutes. I ordered a Cactus Red Cider which had a very pretty color. It was a bit on the sour side, but enjoyable.  
 We had a great dinner at Revival Bar & Kitchen. The chef is creating dynamic dishes that are both creative and delicious. I highly recommend dining here. It would make the perfect spot for pre-theater dining in Berkeley.

In Orlando: Blue Zoo

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I just got back from a Business trip to Orlando and stayed at Disney’s Swan & Dolphin Hotel. I was at this same hotel last year for the same conference so was familiar with the property and the food options. Blue Zoo is a Todd English restaurant located in the hotel that I didn’t get a chance to try last time around. I have been to his restaurants in Washington DC and Las Vegas.

It was our first night in Orlando and we were able to get seated at a booth in the bar area. The four of us shared the Classico flatbread which had roasted tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. This was a nice starter to share. It wasn’t spectacular, but I found the tomato sauce to be really good. Must be the roasting.

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We each ordered our own item, but we did some sharing and I was able to taste everyone’s dish. One colleague who was feeling like crab, ordered the crab nachos which had lump crab, black beans, salsa, and cherry peppers. This is probably the last thing I would have ordered because of the combination, but it was better than I expected.

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Another dish was the raw bar selection platter. It came with main lobster tale, oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp, ceviche, and tuna crudo. The restaurant takes pride in sourcing the freshest seafood. I had a clam, shrimp, and a piece of lobster tale and thought it was excellent. My friend who ordered the dish was happy with it except her last bite. She had one bad oyster and had to spit it out.

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Another dish ordered was the black truffle heritage chicken. The chicken came with truffle potato gnocchi and spinach. Who would have thought the chicken would be the best dish. The chicken breast was juicy and had a crispy skin. But the real star was the gnocchi. It was soft and fluffy with a slight char and the truffle flavor was wonderful.

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I was looking closely at their bar menu and decided to order the burger. It came with delicious homemade potato chips. My gourmet burger was grilled to a perfect medium rare which is what I requested. The meat was extremely juicy and eating it made me feel like I was on vacation. It hit the spot.

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Blue Zoo had a couple of glitches, but overall I think it rates well for Orlando.

The Ferry Ride to the Ferry Building

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Rain or shine, it is always fun to take the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco. It was a perfect day on the 4th of July in the Bay Area. I had plans to take the ferry into the City with one of my long time friends to have lunch and celebrate her birthday. Parking is easy and it is free for up to 12 hours at the Washington Street Parking lot in Jack London Square.

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It was a clear day and the ride was great. Riding the ferry allows you to soak up the views. When I pass the cranes, I always think of those AT-AT Walkers. I felt like a tourist as the City skyline became more visible as we got closer.

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The Ferry Building is a foodie’s dream. You can eat and shop for artisanal foods. I bought some bread at Acme Bakery and a few fun kitchen supplies from Sur La Table.

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My friend wanted brunch food so the choices were limited. We stumbled upon Market Bar located right off the Embarcadero. Although I have passed by dozens of times, it was my first time eating here. We were lucky to be able to get outdoor seating.

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My order was simple. I had a refreshing ice tea and flatbread with tomatoes, cheese, and basil topped with an egg. It was like having a pizza that was cut up in small pieces.

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My friend had a real breakfast. Coffee and a fluffy omelet that came with toast and home fries. She also enjoyed her food.

I got a great first impression of Market Bar. The food was good and the weather was awesome to thoroughly enjoy sitting along the Embarcadero.