I know I’m not the only one who, eating regularly at the kind of restaurants most of the country would kill for, sometimes forgets just how privileged I am to live in the Bay Area.
When you can have oysters, organic farm-fresh produce, and grass-fed meats any time you want them, the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
But then, one day, you sit down at a new spot and it's like waking up in the Emerald City. What was beginning to appear black and white suddenly ignites with color. That’s Dalida, the modern Eastern Mediterranean restaurant from husband-and-wife team Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz, that just opened in the historic red-brick barracks lining the southwest corner of the Presidio’s Main Parade Lawn.
The chef power couple (formerly of Noosh) is braiding the familiar and exotic into something unexpected, with flavors that are balanced, approachable, and objectively delicious but also bold and palate-pushing. They’re doing something no one else in SF is—and they’re doing it really, really well.
The bright interior of Dalida brings the Presidio indoors in its hand-painted murals and custom wallpaper.(Maren Caruso)
The Presidio is drenched with fog the evening I arrive for dinner, but inside Dalida it’s like a warm summer evening. The Presidio seeps in through windows lining two sides of the restaurant; its bright flora and birdlife is captured in hand-painted murals and custom wallpaper by Oakland artist Emily Parkinson.
In the main dining room, featherlight woven fixtures float over oceanic velvet-and-leather banquets and Douglas fir tables reclaimed from a defunct historic building. The bar stretches out with cane-backed chairs beneath a gold-painted ceiling. There's a velvety garden-toned lounge and a chef’s counter bordering the open kitchen.
Dalida’s menu isn’t exactly Turkish, it’s Istanbullu, flavors from a cosmopolitan capital city that’s been a crossroads for communities from Central Asia to Eastern Europe for centuries. Elements hail from Georgian, Greek, and Armenian cuisines; from the heritage of Persian, Jewish, and Arabic traditions; and from the vast Mediterranean jewel of Turkey. But the menu isn’t stuck in the Old World. Several dishes are also influenced by California’s bounty and even chef Laura’s Mexican roots.
The meal begins with small plates, a wide selection from sea, land, and garden that includes Iberico pork souvlaki, short rib kebabs with sweetbreads and sumac onions, and fattoush salad with roasted summer veggies and pomegranate molasses dressing.
California tahdig, an east-meets-west combination of crispy Persian rice topped with uni, smoked trout roe, and halibut.(Maren Caruso)
The California tahdig—a pat of crispy saffron-and-preserved-yuzu Persian rice topped with local halibut crudo, smokey trout roe, Santa Barbara uni, and strands of umami seaweed—can’t be missed, our server says: “It’s the perfect expression of Sayat’s journey from Istanbul to California.” To accompany it, I order the pachanga borek, a fried three-corner pastry stuffed with a zippy bastirma-spiced mushroom and cheese filling and drizzled with plum tkemali and green tahini. Explosive and savory, they are more than deserving of a place on that can’t-miss list, too.
In Turkey, turbot, a Mediterranean fish with rich, mildly sweet flesh, is a symbol of celebration. At Dalida, they serve it whole (or as a half portion) with a littleneck clam–spiked beurre blanc. Grilled to perfection, it flakes gently off the bone, succulent and meaty. I soak up the sauce with hunks of soft, doughy flatbread, a recipe the chefs have perfected after two years of trying and trying again.
The turbot is delicious but ultimately the thing I love most at Dalida has more humble roots: the steamed corn masa in grape leaves. Technically, the entree is a flattened tamale wrapped in grape leaves instead of corn husks or banana leaves—a trick the Ozyilmazs discovered after they’d run out of the latter one day while making tamales at home. But in reality, with its stew of beluga lentils, sweet apricot charoset sauce, and a crown of fresh herbs, it is so much more. Like many of Dalida’s dishes, it's a reconfiguration of a well-known food through an Eastern Mediterranean lens, a reconfiguration that results in something really special.
Steamed corn masa in grape leaves with beluga lentils, apricot charoset sauce, and fresh herbs.(Maren Caruso)
With both the cocktails and desserts, they take a similar approach. The restaurant tapped Evan Williams (Bar Agricole, Beehive), to craft an east-meets-west menu that combines the spices, yogurts, and preserved fruits of the Mediterranean with foraged aromatics from the Presidio. The result is drinks that are unique but not overwhelmingly unfamiliar. The Saturnalia, a blend of rum, caramelized pineapple, yogurt, Lebanese 7 spice, and lime resembles its distant cousin, the piña colada, but is an animal all its own; the coffee martini has the cold brew and vodka you’d expect but adds lemon oil, green cardamom, mahleb, and chocolate malt.
Among the sweets are homestyle favorites with twists of their own: a deconstructed baklava layered with pistachio cremeux, pistachio nuts, and raspberry sauce; a rice pudding that’s charred like a creme brulee and bathed in smoked caramel; a tres leches cake with rose marmalade made from flowers from the garden outside. Several flavors of housemade Turkish Marash-style ice cream, including honey and melon-anise, are also on order—a fitting wrap up to a fantastic meal.
From start to finish, Dalida is a delight. At the end of the year, when the best new restaurant lists are released, its name will no doubt be at the top.
// Dalida is open from 5pm to 9pm Wednesday through Saturday; 101 Montgomery St., Ste. 100 (Presidio), dalidasf.com.
The husband-and-wife team behind Dalida, Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz.(Maren Caruso)