There are layers of meaning behind Dalida, the name of the modern Mediterranean restaurant that opened in the Presidio back in June. In Polish Yiddish, it means dahlia, San Francisco’s official flower, which grows abundantly in a nearby community garden. It’s also the national flower of Mexico, co-executive chef Laura Millan Ozyilmaz’s home country. Last but not least, “Dalida is also the name of my mother-in-law,” Ozyilmaz says.
She met Sayat Ozyilmaz, an ethnic Armenian man from Istanbul, when both of them were in culinary school in New York. In 2016, the pair tied the knot in Acapulco, Laura’s hometown, and embarked on a road-trip honeymoon traveling around Mexico and the United States, where they interned—or staged, in culinary parlance—at some 25 different restaurants. They eventually made their way to San Francisco.
In their new home, the two chefs found themselves cooking at some of the city’s best restaurants, Laura at Saison and Sayat at Mourad. A year in, they joined their talents and started a pop-up called Istanbul Modern, where they sowed the seeds for Dalida. The two also helped open Noosh, a Mediterranean restaurant in Pacific Heights.
At their new spot, the Ozyilmazes take an inclusive approach, showcasing the food cultures of the eastern Mediterranean region that once made up the Ottoman Empire. You’ll taste North African, Persian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Jewish influences.
“The region was one country for a long time,” says Sayat. “If you travel north, a dish is called one thing; if you travel south, it’s called something else.”
What this means is that Dalida’s massive menu features dishes from Greek souvlaki to tahdig, a saffron-forward rice dish from Iran. But the Ozyilmazes turn the crispy rice dish into a vessel to showcase California seafood, topping the dome of rice with creamy sea urchin from Santa Barbara, two types of seaweed from Monterey Bay and a sashimi of halibut from the San Francisco Bay. This makes for a fancy start to a meal, a touch of luxe that reflects the couple’s five-star culinary CV.
But where do you go from there? There are 27 items divided into five sections across the massive menu, not counting sides or desserts.
The easiest thing is just to go with the chefs’ menu and have them pick for you. This is a fine decision if it’s your first time, but you’ll miss out on many of the PFG dishes, so allow me to help:
Start with the aforementioned California tahdig, then move to the octopus, a beautiful meaty mosaic of thinly sliced tentacles topped with a sauce of sujuk, a spicy Middle Eastern fermented sausage typically made with beef. At Dalida, they use pork, a very Spanish pairing that recalls Laura’s experience cooking in that part of the world. There’s also a briny caper olive relish that brightens and lifts the dish.
“It’s an Aegean idea—one of the ways we showcase the idea of East meets West,” says Sayat.
Once you’ve had your fill from the sea, move to the breaking bread portion of the menu, which means freshly baked, piping hot pita bread you can dip in silky hummus, smoked yogurt or peppery muhammara, a dip with Syrian origins typically made from roasted red peppers and walnuts to which Dalida adds a smoky Turkish pepper paste and almond meal. “It makes you feel at home,” says Sayat of the bread course. “It forces people to feel comfortable.”
From there, you’ll want to focus the rest of your appetite on the land section of the menu: Duroc pork cheek souvlaki is cooked slowly for 12 hours sous vide before being deep fried and served with a mustardy-crème fraiche and crispy shoestring potatoes. This dish was inspired by lunches of a Greek vacation past; cop sis (Turkish shish kabobs) alternate chunks of beefy short rib with fatty sweetbreads on a skewer. They’re broiled over high heat, then immediately dusted with a clay-colored smoky spice blend. The skewers are served with a side of sumac-coated onions and over homemade lavash you can use to make little tacos.
Then there’s the arayes burger—which features an herby beef kebab stuffed into a pita that’s broiled in such a fashion that meat and bread become one. It’s then dipped in shatta (a spicy Palestinian red pepper sauce) and chives for a nice green garnish. “Arayes is the Lebanese name—we found a similar concept that’s made in Israel and Palestine,” Sayat explains. Wherever it comes from, it’s PFG.
If you can, save room for the manti. The little ravioli-like dumplings are filled with lamb, tossed in brown butter and served over a rich, reduced tomato sauce and topped with garlicky yogurt sauce.
If you’re drinking, consider starting with a Saturnalia, a rum-based cocktail fortified with yogurt and garnished with pistachio and rose petals. It’s like a Turkish pina colada that drinks like a mai tai, according to bar manager Evan Williams. Or have wine director Ruth Frey pick a bottle of wine from an unexpected region like Bulgaria or Armenia.
If you’ve managed to save room for dessert, kudos to you. Any of the seasonally changing homemade ice creams are a refreshing way to finish—they’ve got that signature stretchy chew you’ll find in Turkish ice that comes from salep, a powder made from the dried roots of orchids. The ice creams, which currently come in chocolate, sour cherry, kaymak (a Turkish clotted cream) and honey flavors, are sweet but not too sweet.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him on Instagram.
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