Noosh Brings Fine-Dining Chops to Casual Mediterranean in Pac Heights

by Caleb Pershan | Eater San Francisco

Photography by Patricia Chang

It’s adopting a new dining format, too

Noosh, one of Eater’s 12 most highly anticipated restaurants in the country, is finally ready to serve Eastern Mediterranean food to San Francisco diners in a bright, Santorini-chic space.

Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz (chefs whose intimidating pedigrees include Saison, Mourad, Eleven Madison Park, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns) have been testing their kebabs, Turkish flatbreads, and chubby pita sandwiches through Caviar delivery and private events. Many more fans are already familiar with their recipes thanks to their popular pop-up, Istanbul Modern, which started it all and connected them to partner John Litz (co-founder and partner of two Michelin star Lazy Bear.)

Now their bright, 120-seat restaurant and full bar in Pac Heights — delayed for months, in part by permitting — is finally greeting friends and family for soft opening dinners. Service to the public at 2001 Fillmore will start as soon as next week. (Noosh has not declared a formal opening date.)

The Format

With a new service format, Litz says he wants Noosh to fill “a void” in dining. “I always thought, wouldn’t it be cool to create a hybrid of full-service fine-dining with casual, and create this sweet spot that doesn’t exist?”

He’s not alone in that mission: Local restaurants from Souvla to Corridor and Verjus all aim to bridge a similar gap.

All-day dining at Noosh is casual: A host will greet customers in the entrance, take their order on a tablet, and assign them to a table. No reservations, no numbers, no buzzers. Every member of the service team can wait on any table, and guests close out with any of them on tablets, using a common point of sale system called Toast to sign and tip.

An elegant but informal dining room will go a long way to striking the right balance. Keith Kirley of Kirley + Architecture and builder John Boswell of Colling Design + Build constructed the 3,000-square-foot space at Noosh, with interiors by Eden Wright Design, Mokume Design, and the partners themselves.

The Food

Noosh’s menu aims for the same cool-but-comfortable balance as decor and service. “We want food that’s approachable to everybody,” says Laura Ozyilmaz. “The kind of food we want to eat.”

Originally from Guerrero, Mexico, Laura fell in love with Eastern Mediterranean food while traveling and cooking in Turkey. When she met Sayat, an Armenian from Istanbul who moved to the US for college at Dartmouth, it was “a bonus.”

One way the couple brings their fine-dining ethos to the casual new kitchen is their emphasis on house-made ingredients. They make their own halloumi (roasted with Szechuan rose honey), vinegars, preserved lemons, and spice blends, with spices you can’t find elsewhere because they’re shipped from Sayat’s dad in Istanbul.

That attention to detail is also a way to honor Mediterranean cuisines that can fall under a large, vague umbrella in the US. In the Middle East, says Laura, “Everybody is sensitive about hummus, about falafel, kebabs... the food is everything for them, and their own culture. And we need to respect every single one.”

Noosh halloumi (Szechuan rose honey, $8 for two)

The overarching influence at Noosh is the lasting impact of the Ottoman Empire, and the restaurant describes its food as “Eastern Mediterranean inspired and California made.” With its menu, Noosh also hopes to promote dishes that lack the local ubiquity of hummus and labneh (though they serve both).

“We want muhammara to be the next hummus,” says Laura. “Why not?”

In a California twist, Noosh’s version of the red pepper dip is made with almonds, rather than the usual walnuts.

Another emphasis at Noosh is on Eastern Mediterranean beverages, like foraged teas, wild pistachio coffee (also sent by Sayat’s dad), and shrubs: Vinegar-based beverages served in sparkling water that originated in Iran.

“The zeitgeist talks about cultural appropriation, and to me, this is one of those rare instances of cultural re-appropriation,” says Sayat, “because shrubs are now a hipster movement.” Noosh is taking them back.

A chocolatey fermented cacao nib shrub is available on its own, or in cocktail form as an ingredient in a highball. Bar director Andrew Meltzer (2016 US Bartender of the year) serves it with Westland American single malt whiskey and soda. A full cocktail menu sets Noosh apart from the casual crowd, and so will its wine selection, with bottles from Turkey, Hungary, Georgia, and California. There’s even a proprietary red from Skipstone Wine in Sonoma (where Sayat and Laura were once private chefs).

The entrance at Noosh

The Tech

Laura and Sayat hosted their Istanbul Modern pop-up through the website Feastly, where Litz has been an advisor. Theirs was “far and away” the best performing on the platform, says Litz.

When he found a prominent Fillmore Street space for a restaurant, he approached the couple, who had been planning to open a casual restaurant on their own. Now, they’re a trio. And with ticketed dinners and private events to come at Noosh, the team will keep channelling the elegant, tasting-menu dinner party that made their pop-up a hit.

Litz, whose background is in technology and restaurants, is eager to pitch the high-tech capabilities of Noosh, praising its possibilities as the first in a chain. Noosh is wired for lightning-fast wifi, with 18 security cameras that could one day test facial recognition technology. But don’t freak out — they don’t yet, and probably won’t anytime soon.

Beyond its online delivery (which could account for 20 to 60 percent of Noosh’s sales, per Litz) the most high-tech aspect of the restaurant so far is that it’s cashless (a controversial option that many restaurants have embraced to avoid liability and cut costs). It’s also got an app: Customers can order through that, should they choose to download it, and beacon technology can blast out deals and alerts to them on the street outside.

But the team’s most enticing breakthrough at Noosh is more low tech. They insisted on building the exhaust pipe from Noosh’s oven not straight up, and not out onto Pine Street, but all the way across the restaurant and onto heavily foot-trafficked Fillmore.

“They were like, are you sure?” recalls Litz. “That’s a really long way.”

The smell of pita and flatbread is more powerful than any push notification could be.