Evening dinner review
Dining diversity is a funny thing. Salt Lake City is blessed with sushi joints as far as the eye can see. If it’s Mexican food you’re jonesing for, you’re in luck too. And should you be yearning for a Gyro, you are probably not too far from one of our many great Greek establishments. Yet, when it comes to Middle Eastern options, our choices are fewer and further between. In all likelihood, if you stopped a stranger on the street and inquired as to Salt Lake City’s best Middle Eastern eatery, they would point you to the venerable Mazza or downtown institution Cedars of Lebanon. Well folks, SLC has a new kid on the block, perhaps one with the chops to take the crown as top dog when it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine.
Initially, news of Layla’s opening took me by surprise. Reading through another local blogger’s restaurant reviews, I was taken aback by a glowing review of this new restaurant, seemingly out of nowhere. Layla is the re-invention of the former Confetti’s restaurant (same location, same family owners/operators), which I confess I’d personally never heard of before. A quick browse online showed Confetti’s had been a popular neighborhood eatery featuring a quirky mix of Italian and Eastern Mediterranean dishes (Falafel sat happily on the menu alongside Lasagna).
The restaurant might not look a million dollars from the outside, but step inside and it becomes abundantly clear a lot of work has gone into making the space shine. In the remodel, Layla has opted for a sleek, modern, clean look featuring white walls, white drapes, and dramatic light fixtures. There is a clever use of repeated pattern throughout the space. The restaurant’s menu graphic is used in the wall mounted light shades and the inlaid star motifs on the cool tables are seen again in the metalwork separating the dining space from the host’s counter. But I digress, “How’s the food?” I hear you ask.
The menu now features a good variety of exotic Middle Eastern, primarily Lebanese, dishes and drinks along with several dishes, such as steaks and short ribs, for the less-adventurous diner.
Starting off with the liquor menu (Layla has a full bar) we opted for a glass of Lebanese red wine (Massaya, $7) and a house cocktail, the Layla Rose ($7.75). I’m far from a wine expert, but it’s always interesting to diverge from the usual suspects in regards to wine-producing nations. The Massaya was a full bodied red, which I enjoyed so much I had another glass. The Layla Rose was a rose water-infused vodka martini, the fruity sweetness of which also hit the spot.
We started our meal with the Zaatar Herb Flatbread ($5):
I was fairly sure I’d never tried the Middle Eastern spice blend Za’atar before, so the flatbread jumped off the page for me. Had to try it. The Za’atar added hints of licorice and smokiness to the chewy bread and made for a very nice start to our meal.
Mediterranean Crab Cake ($6):
The crab cake was one of the aforementioned less-adventurous items on offer, and in the interest of comparing both aspects of the menu, we gave it a spin. It was a fairly decent cake, the flavor and texture of which were enhanced by bites of finely minced vegetables such as celery and bell pepper. Not a bad price too.
For our first entree we opted for the Musakhan ($12.50):
This wrap came stuffed with with roasted chicken, caramelized onions, sumac, and pine nuts. The combination of the fruity/tart sumac and sweet caramelized onions proved to be a wonderful blend. Add in some delicious pine nuts and juicy chicken and you have a seriously ‘one more bite’ dish. The wrap was quickly portioned up and split between us, and I’ve already started to investigate where I can buy sumac online for my attempts to replicate this dish at home.
This entree came with a choice of rice or the signature house fries (again with a little Za’atar). We chose the fries and also asked for a side of the Harissa-flavored Aioli. The fries were first rate, super hot and crisp from the fryer, fluffy inside; and again the Za’atar made for a enjoyable twist. The Harissa-powered dipping sauce was another revelation, spicy and garlic packed, it didn’t last long and was an excellent accompaniment to both the fries and the Musakhan.
Our other entree was the Mougrabieh ($15.00):
This stew-like dish featured giant Lebanese pearl couscous, hunks of roasted chicken, pearl onions and a handful of chickpeas. To be honest the dish would make a perfect companion for a cold winter’s night, rather than as the late summer evening meal we were undertaking, but the delicious flavors meant we devoured it regardless. I was surprised by the subtle complexity of the dish, I enjoyed unexpected hints of cinnamon and sweetness in the perfectly balanced broth.
Both entrees came with fresh baked rolls and butter, perhaps another nod to those diners not ready to jump completely into the Middle Eastern dining experience. In retrospect, perhaps the restaurant is aiming to transition slowly from it’s former incarnation, so as to not drive away loyal customers. During our meal, we heard more than one table around us ask their server confusedly about the changed menu and decor. That said, once served, all the other diners seemed as equally bowled over and impressed as we were by the new menu.
The end of our meal was looming and our server informed us many desserts were made on the premises by Layla herself, and that her Tiramisu was to die for. However, if you are familiar with ‘Turkish Delight’ then you will know why we instantly decided to sample the Rose Water and Orange Blossom Ice Creams ($1.50 per scoop) instead:
Both flavors are acquired tastes, being so overtly floral, but each of the ice creams were excellent, the orange blossom in particular is now a new favorite of ours. A word of warning, Layla also sells these ice creams to go for $7 a pint.
We finished by sharing the Layla’s Special Coffee ($3.00) from the after dinner drinks menu:
This iced coffee was served Turkish-style with the coffee grounds settling before our eyes as it was brought to the table. It was sweetened with condensed milk. Our waiter advised us to hold off for a moment while the coffee grounds slowly sunk to the bottom of the glass. I think we managed to restrain ourselves for only a minute or two before eagerly sipping our way to a nice end-of-meal caffeine buzz.
Service throughout the meal was very good. Our server was knowledgeable regarding the menu, and was quick to answer any questions we had on some of the more unusual items. It was also he who suggested we try the Harissa aioli with the Musakhan, which proved to be a taste revelation, just as he had claimed it would be. Towards the end of the meal, a gentleman whom I presume is the owner/father/main chef stopped by to check in on our dining experience. It was a nice touch and reinforced the familial approach of the restaurant. I have my fingers crossed for Layla, and hope they will maintain the excellence we found in this first meal. If they can, SLC might just have a new go to place for truly great Middle Eastern cuisine.
Layla Grill and Mezze
4751 South Holladay Boulevard, 84117
Founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review. Former restaurant critic at the Salt Lake Tribune. Stuart is largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words he doesn’t understand. Ate all the pies.