Go Hungry

Cafe Layla ups the ante on South Grand

Driving down South Grand one day, en route to that other Ted Drewes, I noticed a new sign on the building at Grand and Gasconade that formerly housed Linda's Lounge and Luncheon. Were it not for my immediate need for a strawberry concrete, I would have stopped by Cafe Layla right then -- if for no other reason than I liked the bright blue-and-orange signage. Instead, I resolved to return.

Linda's was your basic neighborhood joint that also served lunches, mostly from a vat of oil. This whole "cafe" thing seemed a bit out of place. Now, a lot of bars have dining rooms, and the food is pretty predictable and usually satisfying for what it is: fried appetizers, fried fish, burgers, chicken, a cheap steak. You get the picture. Essentially these are diners that offer a full bar but no breakfast.

When Ahmed Jakupovic, a fleshy, accommodating man with a deadpan affability, acquired Linda's two years ago, he expanded the kitchen and remodeled the bar. A Bosnian immigrant, Jakupovic had studied restaurant-and-hotel management at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park after coming to the U.S. in 1996 and served stints at Café Napoli and Max's Bar and Grill in Clayton. About six months ago, he added a dining area, transforming part of his new establishment (which he named after his young daughter) into an Italian restaurant -- right down to the cloth napkins and faux-finish walls.

The only trouble is, I'm hard pressed to say whether the result is a restaurant/bar or a bar/restaurant, even after several visits.

The confusion began when we walked in the door that appears to be the main entrance to the restaurant. It's not. Instead, we found ourselves in the bar, which is equipped with a jukebox (lots of rock and country), bar-top poker machines, a bandstand to accommodate the DJ who spins on weekends and, of course, the bar itself. Once we got seated in the adjoining small dining room, the bar area continued to intrude in the form of drifting smoke, raised voices and a sound system that competed with the dining room's rock radio. Clearly the bar folks weren't waiting to be seated for dinner.

The menu here is dominated by pasta and meat dishes, with beef, chicken and veal leading the way. But one of the best entrées isn't even on the menu: Every other Saturday, Jakupovic rotisserie-grills a whole lamb right in front of the restaurant. He sells it mostly in the form of to-go orders priced at $7 a pound, but if you like your meat fresh off the spit in all its smoky glory, then show up at around two o'clock in the afternoon and Jakupovic will let you pick out the cuts you want. Other off-the-menu items for those in the know include house-made Bosnian sausage on Friday and Saturday nights, and a fried-chicken dinner served with broccoli and mashed potatoes. The broccoli was fresh, and there was lots of it. The potatoes, though, had all the telltale signs of instant. (I wasn't in the mood to quibble too much, given the dish's $4.95 price tag.)

Jakupovic must have skipped his culinary-school course in portion control. Pounds and pounds of pasta are a Cafe Layla hallmark. A fettuccine Alfredo loaded with garlic and heavy cream was a table fave and could have easily fed three (for just $6.95!). Same went for pasta Bolognese, a massive bowl of linguine tossed with a richly flavored, creamy meat-and-tomato sauce. Instead of making his meat sauce with sausage, as is commonly done, Jakupovic uses small bits of steak -- not as flavorful as sausage, but tasty nonetheless.

Unlike many Italian restaurants, Jakupovic cooks all of his pasta dishes to order; no parboiled noodles dunked in a hot bath at the last minute here. It'd be nice if he took the same care in choosing the bread he serves; as it is, you the get bland, soft, store-bought Italian variety. (Why do so many restaurants skimp on good bread when it's so readily available?). And real butter would be a nice touch.

The six chicken and veal selections ($7.95 and $8.95, respectively) are listed individually, but we're really talking three variations: piccata, Marsala and Parmigiana. Though it was quite flavorful, veal Marsala drowned in a flood of sauce that drenched the accompanying broccoli stalks. Here, turning the sauce into a reduction would have done wonders. A T-bone steak was beautifully grilled and, at $12.95, was, shall we say, a cut above what one usually finds in this price range. Filet mignon ($13.95) and New York strip steak ($11.95) are also available. Like the other entrées, the steak was served with a large complement of broccoli, which was fine. The debit side was an underdone baked potato.

Forget the appetizers. They're a throwback to the site's bar-and-grill incarnation: chicken wings, fried mushrooms and toasted ravioli (as well as, for some reason, egg rolls) -- as if the bar patrons themselves weren't enough to remind you of their too-close proximity. A door separating the restaurant area from the bar wouldn't hurt.

The wine list is limited to seven whites and six reds, but that's plenty for a menu like this one, and the prices aren't bad. Nothing special here, mind you, but a Castle Rock pinot noir for $16 or a Hess Select chardonnay for $18 isn't too bad a deal. The barmaid/waitress will open your bottle, bring it to your table and let you pour your own. If you prefer not to do the honors, choose from the seven wines served by the glass ($4.25 to $5.25). Not much to say about the desserts: There are two, tiramisu and cannoli.

And if you have room for either one of those, you didn't eat all of your pasta.