Makdous is a baby eggplant cured in olive oil and then stuffed with spiced walnuts, garlic and red pepper. You might not notice the dish on your maiden voyage through the menu at Layla Lebanese Restaurant. It's listed toward the end of the cold appetizers, after better-known dishes (hummus, baba gannoujh, tabbouleh...). I didn't order it until my last visit to this two-month-old restaurant in Forest Park Southeast's Grove district.
The server returned a couple of minutes later to tell me the kitchen was out of makdous. No big deal. Busy Saturday evening, every table occupied, belly dancer shimmying hither and yon. But I really wanted to try that makdous; it was, I realized, the only dish on Layla's menu that I'd never tried at some other Middle Eastern restaurant.
So a few days later I went back to Layla, solely for the makdous. The server said, "We are out of one thing today." I braced myself for the inevitable (and the exquisitely galling form of disappointment that sets in when one has nobody to blame but oneself), but he was pointing to a different cold appetizer, the stuffed grape leaves (warek inab). Makdous? Yes, we have makdous this afternoon.
OK, it isn't the most visually appealing dish. Then again, that's eggplant for you: so seductively packaged by nature; so easily rendered barfy looking. The stuffed eggplant, sliced crosswise into bite-size rounds, is wrinkled and gray. Picture elephant skin. But don't be dissuaded. The flavor is remarkable, the eggplant's astringent, faint bitterness yielding to the mild spiciness of the stuffing, which transcends the flavors of its ingredients in a way that's impossible to quite pin down.
Layla has taken a roundabout route from Lebanon to the Grove. Owner Awss Alrea came to St. Louis from Dubai, where he was the sales manager at a BMW dealership. His chef, Wasam Hamed, did his culinary training in Jerusalem. They opened Layla in the space that housed Five Bistro, which relocated to the Hill, and Flavors BBQ Sports Bar & Grill, which closed last year. You enter through the bar — the restaurant ought to have squared away its liquor license by now — a long, narrow, dimly lighted space with some dining tables toward the back. The main dining room is smaller but brighter, with pastel-green walls and plenty of natural light.
The makdous is a menu outlier, but it typifies what comes out of Layla's kitchen. Even crowd pleasers such as hummus get a distinctive treatment here. Layla's is so thick with tahini that when I tasted it for the first time I thought there might be a little peanut butter in the mix. There isn't, but the acidic foils — garlic, lemon juice, a sprinkling of tart sumac on top — are so well calibrated that they actually elevate the spread's richness. Those two dishes are my favorite among the cold appetizers, but the others are quite good as well. The baba gannoujh (eggplant puréed with tahini, garlic and lemon juice) has a yogurt-like texture and a lovely, palate-sparking acidic bite. Tabbouleh — parsley, tomato and bulgur tossed in olive oil and lemon juice — is superb whether consumed by itself, as a salad or scooped up with pita bread.
Hot appetizers include very good falafel. Deep-fried to a golden-brown crisp, the chickpea mixture within tender and flavorful, green with parsley and redolent of garlic. (You can also order falafel as a sandwich.) Kibbeh is falafel for carnivores: deep-fried balls of lightly spiced ground beef bulked out with bulgur. Ful medames brings a dish of al dente fava beans with tomatoes and garlic in a thin, bright lemon broth. It's quite tasty, and filling. My favorite among the hot appetizers was the sambusic. Four to an order, these are small pies reminiscent of empanadas, only smaller and made with a dough that's lighter and crisper. They come stuffed with your choice of ground beef, spinach or (my selection) salty, tangy halloumi cheese.
Layla's entrées have neither the range nor the intrigue of its appetizers. With the exception of the falafel sandwich, a baked eggplant dish and a couple of platters made up various appetizers, all main plates feature grilled meat or seafood. Which isn't to say they aren't good. The two chicken-based dishes — shish kebab and a grilled half-chicken — are especially tasty. The kitchen marinates its birds in a blend of lemon juice, garlic and spices, which renders the meat succulent and boosts its flavor with a welcome verdant note.
Often less is more. A trio of lamb chops, grilled medium-rare to order, receive nothing more than an olive-oil marinade to complement the meat's natural flavor. The most complex of the meat entrées is the beef kefta: an oblong patty of ground beef seasoned with onions and a blend of herbs and spices and then skewered and grilled. It has the look and texture of a hamburger but the seasoning of a good sausage. Most entreés come with lightly seasoned basmati rice and a vegetable medley (green beans and carrots on my visits). The sides in general are well prepared if uninspiring.
One of the entrée-platter appetizer combos is geared toward vegetarians, the other is a selection of the chef's favorites. Either is a fine introduction to Layla at its best. And should yours not include the makdous, then, like me, you have a convenient excuse to return.