Perhaps because a downtown restaurant devoted to the serious art of Lebanese cookery must outwardly differentiate itself from King Street’s late-night pita slingers, the mood at Leyla skews somber on weeknights.
The shotgun dining room is done up in dark colors, and the recessed overhead bulbs provide just enough light by which to read the menu, which runs longer than some lease agreements. (“Are you familiar with Lebanese food?” a manager is apt to ask worriedly.) After the happy hour crowd that congregates for Lebanese wine and cheap garlic fries thins out, the restaurant can get very, very quiet.
Solemnity isn’t the long-range plan at Leyla, which opened in September. The owners envision one day jazzing up the space with live music and belly dancers. For now, though, the enterprise from first-time restaurateurs Joseph and Dolly Awkar, an Arabic language professor at the College of Charleston, telegraphs more timidity than joy. That’s a shame, because there are plenty of dishes here worth celebrating.
Who wouldn’t want to break into a belly dance after sampling the zeytoon salad, for instance? The engagingly mercurial salad of split green olives, shiny with olive oil, teeters between the rich garnet sweetness of its pomegranate sauce and the heat of its chili pepper paste. Whose arms wouldn’t ache to snake after a taste of the smooth, complex hummus?
If anything is keeping customers from reaching for their finger cymbals, it’s almost certainly the service. On my first visit, it took so long for anyone to greet my table that I finally approached the hostess to ask whether we were supposed to place our orders at the bar. Eaters who visited Leyla in its first kinky month are prone to spin sagas about excruciatingly long post-order waits: The kitchen provides little saucers of salty green olives and pink spears of pickled turnip to help pass the time, but guests have to know to ask for them.
And yet, when the food finally arrives, it’s impressively adept. Guiding chef Vatche Meguerdichian’s experience shows in the seasoning of the excellent sujuk sausage, an Armenian interloper. Tucked into a crater of firm, garlicky lebneh, the meat’s cumin and pepper are cooled by the surrounding strained yogurt. Fried crescent pies stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts are another meaty success, even though the sanboosik pastry tastes mass-made.
On my second visit, a server claimed the shankleesh salad — a kind of vegetarian steak tartar, which traditionally features finely chopped onions, tomatoes and a fermented spiced cheese unique to the Middle East — was made with cheddar. Fortunately, the substitution didn’t entirely undermine the appetizer’s enjoyable funk.
If your mantu lexicon includes mostly slippery, steamed dumplings, Leyla’s tiny fried wontons will come as a surprise. Crimped at their ends like Christmas crackers, the Armenian-style mantu are filled with richly spiced lamb. The ground meat is a sight better than the animal parts on the “Adventurous Territory” menu, which includes too-citrusy frog legs and dried-out lamb tongue.
With dozens of dishes on the menu, it’s hard to avoid bumping into a clunker. Even the combination platters, assembled by Leyla for the benefit of guests overwhelmed by so many unfamiliar double consonants, aren’t flawless.
The falafel is especially egregious. It’s lacy and fluffy, rather than firm and sturdy, and its dry shell encases more chickpea than spice. A spicy muhammara, the classic spread of walnuts and pomegranate molasses, is a project for the dip DOT: Riddled with distracting lumps and bumps, it smacks of kitchen carelessness.
The pita bread, so critical to the enjoyment of chopped salads and yogurt-based dishes which don’t make sense on a fork, is equally disappointing. The cold, bland flaps of bread are functional at best.
Still, any bread complaints can be resolved with a smear of tomato paste, a handful of cheese and a stint in the toaster oven, as countless teenagers who’ve mastered English muffin pizzas know. Only the snobbiest baker could find fault with a series of pita-based appetizers, including the antakali bread, threaded with onion and seasoned with sumac.
There are 10 desserts on Leyla’s menu, including cashew baklava and Layali Leyla, an ashtaliyyeh sundae that evokes ancient majesty. Topped with rosewater honey, pistachios, bananas and cream, the baroque almond custard neatly foreshadows the future Leyla, where service stumbles, kitchen slip-ups and management’s unease won’t interfere with the fun of eating accomplished Lebanese food in downtown Charleston.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.