Former Dyafa chef Mona Leena has opened her first brick and mortar restaurant, Lulu, in West Berkeley’s Gilman District, and it is a deliciously creative celebration of her Palestinian heritage and California upbringing.
Born out of her pandemic pop-up, The Mana’eesh Lady, Leena offers seasonal, ingredient-driven breakfast and lunch dishes — including mezze brunch boards — that you likely won’t find elsewhere in the Bay Area. Deviled eggs with labneh-whipped yolks and za’atar rims. Shredded fillo knafeh pancakes with sweet cow’s cheese and orange blossom syrup. Cold brew with tahini and caramel.
Lulu (the chef’s childhood nickname, meaning “pearl” in Arabic) melds Leena’s love of the Palestinian flavors she grew up eating in her multigenerational San Jose home with the French culinary chops she earned while working at places like Jardiniere. All the bread is made in-house, from sesame-seeded “simsim” yeasted rolls to mana’eesh studded with feta and house-dried za’atar. She sources from local farms and even has one that grows za’tar exclusively for Lulu.
The restaurant, which opened in late August, serves weekday breakfast and lunch and weekend brunch. A dinner program is coming later this year. Here are our impressions from a recent visit:
THE VIBE: Lulu is a cross between a hip urban cafe and your coolest friend’s kitchen. The walls are covered in peppy, fig-studded pink paper coupled with ironic pop art, like Camel Passing by artist Rahmah Alessa. Lulu is homey yet modern, with outdoor seating, a contemporary, cafe-style dining room and plenty of greenery.
THE FOOD: Unique, thoughtful and impossibly fresh. From the current weekday breakfast menu, the SimSim Breakfast Sando is a must. It comes with caramelized Early Girl tomato and wild arugula with brown butter labneh and a fried egg ($11), served on a yeasted roll with sesame seeds. If you’re feeling sweet, try the Halloumi & Preserves; right now the star is strawberry jam, which is slathered over ghee-fried halloumi cheese and aleppo on that same simsim bun ($12).
For lunch, Lulu offers salads, sandwiches and bowls under $16. The Falafel Bowl comes with garlic-fried freekah, charred seasonal veggies and zhoug ($14), the Fried Chicken Sando gets an inspiring update with miso-arak glaze and aleppo mayo ($16) and a Thoom Caesar ($12) comes with kale, a jammy egg and roasted asparagus topped with za’atar furikake
Weekend brunch is the showstopper with shareable mezze boards ($25 per person) featuring eye-candy house specialties, like Preserved Labneh balls rolled in flowers and herbs; Early Girl Shakshouka laced with roasted peppers and spicy urfa; Warm Serrano Hummus with chewy, njuda cracklin’; and those Lulu Deviled Eggs. Still hungry? Check out the tasty, a la carte add-ons.
THE DRINKS: A robust coffee program using small-batch, locally-roasted beans from Oakland’s female-run Mother Tongue Coffee, which sources its coffee from small growing communities, like the Bella Vista Women’s Group in Chiapas, Mexico. Lulu’s Cardamom Tcho Mocha ($6.50) is rich yet balanced, like a Mexican mocha spiked with Turkish coffee. They offer a selection of teas by the pot ($10) and a lovely Orange Blossom Lemonade with orange blossom water and edible flowers ($5). Mimosas are currently BYO bubbles, with a variety of juice carafes for $7 each.
DON’T MISS: Sweet and savory breakfast pastries ($2.50-$7), which are offered during the week only and include a Smoked Gouda and Sumac Scone, Tahini Caramel Sticky Bun and a “Zalabyeh” Krueller Donut with Black Cardamon and Lechera Glaze. The latter, inspired by a traditional Palestinian dessert, is freshly fried, yeasted dough that soaks up syrup drizzled on when the doughnut is still hot from the fryer, staying crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.
DETAILS: Open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and from 9:30 a.m. Friday-Sunday at 1019 Camelia St., Berkeley; www.luluberkeley.com