Review: Layla Lebanese Restaurant in The Grove
Layla Lebanese Restaurant, 4317 Manchester Avenue, St. Louis, 314.535.5500
This past summer, the space in The Grove that once housed Five Bistro and, later, Flavors Barbecue reemerged as a Mediterranean eatery. Here, you’ll find belly dancers swaying between tables that are topped with regional favorites like baba ghanoush, crisp falafel and savory shish kebabs. But look a little further and you’ll find Arabic dishes that go far beyond the usual suspects.
While all salads feature fresh romaine and olive oil, the similarities end there. For the Green Salad, a squeeze of fresh lemon and dashes of salt and pepper lightly dress uniformly thin slivers of avocado, cucumbers, green peppers and green olives. This simple salad is easy enough to re-create at home – and tasty enough that we did, for days and days. The olive salad was a solid alternative, substituting tomatoes for avocado, garnished with dried oregano and mint, then finished with a tart splash of balsamic vinegar.
Focus on the Appetizers
The appetizer section of Layla’s menu is the most creative, so don’t overlook its unique mix of hot and cold, traditional and less so. On the conventional (and cold) side is a version of hummus that’s so good, even carnivorous Dan couldn’t resist its creamy texture, subtle seasoning and simple olive oil garnish. Pair it with an order of baba ghanoush for a real treat. Equally fantastic (and familiar) is the falafel. Layla’s rendition of this chickpea classic may be the best we’ve had in town – seasoned just right, the inside boasting bright green specks of fresh parsley. Unfortunately, the kibbe was less successful, the centers of the beef-stuffed dough still frozen even after their time in the deep-fryer. Rounding out the lesser-known options is makdous, slices of baby eggplant that had been essentially pickled: cured in olive oil and then stuffed with nuts and spices. This unique dish was funky yet fantastic, the tangy brine with the red peppers, chopped walnuts and fresh garlic making for an addictive combination.
While the beef shish kebab was under-seasoned, the chicken version was just right. Marinated simply in lemon and olive oil, the poultry was rubbed with a light Zatar seasoning before hitting the grill for a tender and tasty result. The beef kefta – a mixture of ground beef, onions and fresh herbs that got formed into a sausage, skewered and grilled – was also exquisite. Each entree came with a saute of carrots and green beans along with some of the best basmati rice we’ve ever eaten. Fragrant, delicately steamed and piping hot, we’d return for the rice alone.
Desserts and Coffee
The dessert menu also spans the gamut of usual and unusual. For traditionalists, there’s baklava, kissed with a touch of rose water, that’s a good companion to a cup of dark, Arabic coffee. For the more adventurous, there’s kaliaj, a sweet vanilla milk custard wrapped in pastry and finished with light, house-made whipped cream. But if you’re smart, you’ll finish your meal with harishah. The Syrian cake is simply divine, made of dried, shredded coconut and sweetened with coconut milk and honey.
While Mediterranean favorites will draw diners into Layla’s, the execution of more adventurous dishes will push patrons past their comfort zone. Pair that with fresh ingredients, reasonably priced wines and helpful service, and you have a great recipe for gaining this relative newcomer plenty of soon-to-be regulars.
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