Am I sitting in a café just off Beirut’s Corniche, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea? Or really just in Arlington, off Wilson Blvd.? It’s a difficult distinction to make once inside, seated and surrounded by Layalina’s jewel-toned walls.
Layalina Restaurant opened in 1997 and was named after Rima’s, the owner and Executive Chef, daughter Layal. Layalina comes from the Arabic word meaning “Our Nights.” The cuisine is Lebanese and Syrian. Rima is from Lebanon and her husband hails from Syria. Inside the lighting is cozy and subtle and ornate tapestries line the walls and ceiling. The unobtrusive sound of drums, mixed in an Arabic stream of music, produces a festive, yet relaxing atmosphere. Photos of the owner’s family, friends and visiting dignitaries are proudly displayed on a table along with unique pieces of Middle Eastern artwork.
A basket of pita enveloped in a warm cloth is the first thing to arrive at the table. When I peak inside the bundle, heat rushes out, carrying with it the smell of bread fresh from the oven. The mazzas, or appetizers, appear quickly following the pita, which is perfect as I am eager to dip the steamy pita into the Pomegranate Hommos ($6.95) — a creamy chickpea puree with tahini sauce, garlic, lemon juice and sprinkled with pomegranate juice. The hommos is smooth and nicely enhanced by the deep red swirls of pomegranate sauce, bringing just a touch of sweetness to the dish. Next to arrive is the Eggplant Fatoosh Salad ($7.95) laden with eggplant and toasted pita, tomato, onions and parsley in an amazing pomegranate dressing. Again I enlist the warm pita to scoop the salad onto my plate, and yes, sometimes right into my mouth. The fresh herbs, crunch of pita and hint of citrus awaken my taste buds.
The music rolls around the room, ensuring me that I am indeed a welcome guest. The sentiment is repeated in the homeliness of the entrées. Chicken Fatteh ($15.95) arrives with tender chicken served on toasted pita bread and rice, topped with a delicious yogurt sauce. It is almost like a stew, a combination of warm yogurt chickpeas and chicken, with the surprise crunch of the pita. Toasted Lamb Shank ($19.95) is very tender and dipped in herbs and toasted in olive oil, served over pasta in a yogurt-garlic sauce. The pasta is infused with both the lamb and garlic and enhances the crunchy texture of the delicate shank.
Two desserts are made everyday. One of them is baklava, an old favorite. It arrives on a plate strewn with lashings of honey and tart cherries. The tartness of the cherries was such a pleasant surprise. Flakes of pastry in delicate little layers give way under my fork and the honey pistachio center melts away in my mouth with unabashed sweetness. It seems borderline insane, but I find myself dipping a bite and swirling it in the additional honey laced on the plate, but I can’t stop myself and I’m so glad for this loss of self-control.
Maybe it’s the combination of Lebanese and Syrian ancestry, which dates back so many generations, that makes the food so complex and delicious. One thing is certain; it is Rima, owner and chef, who makes diners feel at home. I feel compelled to hug her good-bye, like a returning relative to her home, as though I have known her for a lifetime. Another thing is certain, after that meal, I will be back with friends and family. She may get to know me for almost a lifetime.
Lebanese and Syrian Cuisine
5216 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22205
Tues. – Sun. 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.