Palestinian-Inspired Lulu Opens in Berkeley’s Gilman DistrictSep 06, 2021 03:14PM ● By Fran Miller
Bay Area chef Mona Leena has opened her first brick-and-mortar restaurant in Berkeley’s Gilman District. Lulu (Leena’s childhood nickname meaning ‘pearl’ in Arabic) features Palestinian-inspired California cuisine starring house-made baked goods, mezze brunch, and lunch; dinner service will begin later this year. Born out of Leena’s popular pop-up, The Mana’eesh Lady, Lulu is dedicated to incredibly flavorful menu items that utilized Northern California’s bounty of fresh, seasonal produce.
Leena earned her culinary chops at some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area such as Jardiniere, Serpentine, and Roka Akor. Prior to the pandemic, she worked as the executive chef at Dyafa but when the restaurant shuttered at the during the pandemic, Leena started The Mana’eesh Lady, initially serving guests out of her home. The Mana’eesh Lady offered her a way to deliver her thoughtful and unique takes on Palestinian staples, earning her recognition with consistently sold-out services.
Growing up in a multi-generational Palestinian household, Leena never truly appreciated the complexity and depth of Palestinian dishes until she began cooking professionally. By finding similarities between her mother’s traditional approaches and the immaculate French techniques she was learning, she became mesmerized by, and had a new appreciation for, the food she had always taken for granted. A born-and-raised Californian, Leena’s food embodies the parallels of both Palestinian and California cuisine.
Anchored by a robust bread program, Lulu features a menu of sweet and savory pastries. Leena’s popular mana’eesh is offered with a seasonally rotating menu of two each day. Examples: heirloom Early Girl tomato, chevre, and zhoug (a vibrant, spicy green hot sauce) or Akkawi cheese with seasonal fruit jam or a fully loaded classic za’atar iteration with brown butter labneh, hard boiled egg, seasonal vegetables, and herbs. Leena infuses classics with Palestinian flavors that remind her of her youth like a tahini caramel sticky bun or a “Zalabyeh” Krueller donut with black cardamon and lechera glaze. Other savory pastries include housemade croissants with za’atar and feta featuring Neighbor Bakehouse’s laminated dough, or a Smoked Gouda and Sumac Scone.
A signature item is the Lulu Deviled Eggs, made with whipped labneh yolks, a za’atar rim, pickled pink turnips, and dusted with sumac. Served on freshly baked simsim buns, a yeasted roll topped with sesame seeds, the Simsim Bun Sandos rotates seasonally with offerings including halloumi and preserves or a Breakfast Sando with a fried egg, brown butter labneh, caramelized early girl tomato, and wild arugula.
Lunch features a seasonal mix of small plates, sandwiches, and salads available in full/half sizes including tabbouleh ceviche made with shrimp and white fish, bulgur, tomato, cucumber, pickled pink turnip, topped with a shower of herbs, and served with pita chips.
Served Friday - Sunday, Lulu’s mezze brunch features boards available for guests in sets of two with a dynamic mix of a la carte offerings. Always changing with the seasons, the brunch board includes a mix of house-baked breads, dips, spreads, and shareable items. Seasonal examples include: Za’atar fried eggs, fried Halloumi, Labneh, Baba Ganoush, Shakshuka, Za’atar Mana’eesh, seasonal fruit, and more. A la carte offerings include Leena’s take on a traditional Palestinian dessert, Knafeh, served as a pancake with shredded phyllo, sweet cheese, orange blossom syrup and pistachios, as well as Leena’s version of chilaquiles - “Shuka-quiles," made with pita chips, sweet peppers, Early Girl tomatoes, fresh feta, and soft scrambled eggs. Other items include an Eijeh, a seasonal Palestinian-style omelette with squash blossoms, preserved lemon, feta, and zhough.
Daily espresso and coffee offerings are made with Mother Tongue Coffee, proudly roasted in West Oakland. Don’t miss the Rose Café Brulee, a cappuccino made with rose syrup and served with a torched sugar topping. The Cold Brew with Tahini Caramel is equally delicious. Seasonal cocktails include a rotating menu of spritzes including Strawberry and Fennel, made with fermented strawberry, orange blossom, and Meyer Lemon, or Pluot and Blackberry, with macerated blackberry and mint.
Lulu is open Tuesday-Thursday 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM and Friday-Sunday, 9:30 AM to 4:00 PM. Visit www.luluberkeley.com for updates and follow @lulu.berkely on Instagram.
Photos courtesy of Lulu except where noted. Main image: Lulu brunch board