A meal at Taksim is an experience of watching time slow down — so you can appreciate each and every bite and sip
In a city rife with quality Mediterranean food, solely Turkish restaurants comprise a shortlist. I’ve long hit A La Turca for hole-in-the-wall pide, Troya for Turkish breakfasts and Fillmore meals, Tuba in the Mission, Lokma in the Outer Richmond and my longtime favorite, Kitchen Istanbul — plus superb Meyhouse in Sunnyvale, focused on Anatolian Turkish cuisine.
The aforementioned Lokma opened a sister restaurant in February 2022: Taksim. I was delighted to have not just a Turkish newcomer but an upscale one, although it was with a pang I visited Taksim in Chris Cosentino’s former Cockscomb space in SoMa. In my top 3 (of 10) new restaurants of 2015 as Zagat editor, Cockscomb was a bold showcase of Cosentino’s singular talents. I truly miss his cooking in our city, though he’s still over the lovely though more-subdued-than-his-norm Acacia House in Napa Valley. Nowhere do I miss Cosentino’s cooking more than at Incanto, which defined my early SF days: we’d spend New Year’s Eve and anniversaries, feasting on offal and his lush chocolate blood panna cotta.
Consentino’s trademark boldness still lingers in the striking, lofty, industrial space that is now Taksim. But the space is decidedly more chill. It’s still modern and spare, with that balcony jutting over an open kitchen and dining room below, a new bar in the back. As Middle Eastern music wafts through the room under soothing pendant lamps, the spirit is more romantic vs. high energy like Cockscomb days.
Taksim is named after a historic Istanbul district lined with 1800s architecture and global chains. The food here follows suit: it’s Turkish, to be sure, adhering to tradition but taking a modern approach, alongside cocktails and wines, including some natural and Turkish wines, as they work to import more of the latter. I sipped wines like a balanced natural orange from Germany — 2020 Enderle and Moll Weiss & Grau — or an earthy yet fruity-acidic 2016 Sevilen Öküzgözü and Bogazkere red wine from Turkey.
Owners Serkan Sozen, Birkan Dogan, Emre Kabayel and Neslihan Demirtas partnered with chef Daniel Gribble who has cooked at the likes of French Laundry and La Toque in Napa. It felt like most of the sweet staff are Turkish and we had an engaged conversation about Turkish wines with a server covering other tables as she cleared our wine glasses. Besides feeling immediately transported to Europe, I sensed the passion and care from conversation with her as I did with the bartender while checking out their raki and spirits selection.
Raki is the grape-based spirit of Turkey (also common across the Balkans), heavy on anise, often silky, bright, intense, clouding (luging) like absinthe when water or ice is added. Around the Mediterranean and Middle East you’ll find anise-forward liquors, each with their own distinct styles, including arak, sambuca, pastis and ouzo. Growing up hating licorice and anise flavors, when I came around via absinthe over 15 years ago, I fell hard. I’m crazy about all anise-liqueurs. At my latest visit, they stocked four raki at Taksim — including popular Yeni Raki — working on getting more here to the States.
The milky, anise hit works in Taksim’s Raki Martini, featuring Efe Classic Raki with pomegranate liquor pooling at the bottom of a zig-zag stemmed glass with anise pod garnish. The glass — and overall mixing style — feel a bit 1990s. This isn’t current-day cocktail renaissance. But it is earnest. Even when stirring up the pomegranate, the drink didn’t turn too sweet, though it did cloud that nice, bracing anise, which begged for a flavor counterpoint. I’d love to see more raki cocktails here with a tight focus showcasing the range in raki. I think of all too short-lived Amoura’s arak collection in South San Francisco, an example of the unique position Taksim could hold if they tighten and showcase this rich spirit in honed cocktails.
Now let’s talk food. A round of dips and breads is an ideal start. The space’s wood-fired oven now bakes Turkish breads, including bazlama flatbread in sumac butter, or house pita, with my top bread being roasted garlic oil-glazed pita. There are a lot of dip choices, served in little cups, including a sweet tomato marmalade, whipped labneh, urfa pepper aioli and my fave Middle Eastern dip: muhammara, laden with walnuts, red bell peppers, pomegranate molasses and breadcrumbs. Breads are neutral and comforting with spices (like za’atar) or oils amping up the pita, the breads essentially a backdrop to vibrant dips.
Wood-fired eggplant-stuffed peppers are savory with manchego cheese, shallots, sherry vinegar and parsley. Soft, vegetal and earthy, it’s a light yet nurturing starter. Another worthy veggie dish is za’atar-roasted carrots, a play in contrasts with creamy avocado and whipped kefir, crunchy walnuts, pepitas and sesame seeds, acidic citrus and sweet currants, under a mound of pea tendrils making it salad-esque.
I was curious how octopus with sauerkraut, golden lentils, rye melba, pickled mustard seeds and dill in kefir sauce would play together, but opted to go a different direction being burnt out tasting thousands of octopus dishes the past 20 years. Rice pilaf comes in a small round graced with anchovies and branzino fish, interplaying with grilled seabeans and glazed turnips. Butter poached sole arrives as a white-on-white dish with sprigs of broccoli being the one green punctuation. Milky white sole fish rests in a large, chicharrones-style rice crisp, swimming in marcona almonds and foamy almond milk bubbles. Bits of meyer lemon bring tart contrast. Much as I appreciated the nutty, citrusy seafood variations, the fish was a bit intense-smelling — as a lifelong fish lover unafraid of “fishiness,” it felt out of character for normally-mild sole.
All was right again with dessert. Raki palace pudding felt like a “must” being a more traditional Turkish dessert touched with raki’s anise notes. The creamy pudding is pink under a layer of rose water syrup, artfully garnished with glace apples, pistachio crumbles, pomegranate and almond powder. It’s a lush yet restrained, elegant version of Middle Eastern puddings. Turkish tea arrived on a hanging gold tray our server brought tableside. With our chronic insomnia, caffeinated tea at night is an absolute no-go, but one little sip yielded a cleansing, comforting finish.
There is a sincere authenticity here that is heartwarming, even needed. The lofty, industrial space is warmed by the staff’s friendly care and earnestness, by baking breads, steeping teas. In some ways, the slightly 1990s element hearkens to a simpler time. I could see honing and focused vision taking Taksim to the next level, towards the more ground-breadking direction of what Abaca is for modern Filipino food, for example.
But I wouldn’t want Taksim’s genuineness to be lost and maybe that isn’t their mission. Here it recalls dining in Europe in my early, youthful days of food obsession, understanding a culture first by what’s on the plate or in the glass, even if the ever-rising costs of dining out mean our choices in a city silly with excellence push towards the most consummate experiences. What a restaurant communicates via its service, food and drink is important. And what Taksim says about Turkish culture is familial and nurturing, welcoming to all and hopeful for better days ahead.
// 564 Fourth Street, www.taksimsf.com