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A dinner table is a place where people come together to share a meal, engage in conversation and enjoy life. That is the idea behind Tawla in San Francisco. Tawla is an arabic word with two meanings, both backgammon (the game) and table. It is a word that is found in Turkey (tavla), Greece (tavli) and in Byzantine Greek (tabula). The game is shared across these cultures as is food. Greece, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Syrah, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel have had centuries of cultural cross-pollination. While each of the cuisines are unique to their cultures, with different spices and herbs, there is a connection between many of the dishes. At Tawla in San Francisco, the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean are woven together for a delicious culinary experience. Located on the restaurant-dense Valencia Street, I went with a friend on a recent trip to San Francisco. We selected the Summertime Feast for $69 per person, thinking it would give us a broad sampling of the menu. And it did! We were welcomed with an amuse of plum slices with a smokey salt. The sweetness and tartness of the fruit with the smoky salt awoke our palates. Our tasting menu began with Three Labnehs, made by draining full-fat yogurt. One was za'atar and olive oil, one was hazelnut dukkah and the third was maris pepper and dried mint, which had a nice kick to it.
The first time I heard "kali orexi" was when I went to Greece for my first time. "Kali" means "good" and "orexi" means "appetite." Before every meal in Greece, they say "kali orexi", just as they say "bon appetit" in France and "boun appetito" in Italy. The point is to wish all diners a good meal and that is exactly what was had at the aptly named Orexi in San Francisco. Located in the West Portal area of San Francisco, Oreki has been open for five years. Chef-owner John Loufas and his wife, Effie, along with their friendly staff, run this family-run neighborhood restaurant. The space is warm and inviting with honeycomb artwork along one wall and a large communal table down the center of the room. As tasty as Greek food is, there are not many wonderful examples available in the U.S. There are many quick-serve Mediterranean spots and also those old-school Greek restaurants where the dishes error on the side of a bit too greasy. But at Orexi, traditional dishes are served with fresh, seasonal ingredients and clean flavors.