Trying to eat at Layla’s Persian Food has been anything but easy.
When the restaurant first opened in early September it served lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday. That seemed reasonable and practical. Then, owner Laila Borokhim changed her hours, opening for weekday lunches only. That felt a bit more restrictive, particularly for those of us who don’t work Downtown, but OK.
Taking note of the revised hours, a friend hungry for Persian food set out for lunch after confirming the restaurant was open on Layla’s Facebook page. She arrived from the Far West Side and found the restaurant closed, and relayed her frustration to me. Her ill will was compounded by numerous calls to the restaurant with no answer.
This was long before the holidays, too.
I had a similar experience too exasperating to recount. Weeks later, that same friend and I conspired to try again — this time together. She called ahead and we were in luck.
Halfway through our meal, my companion said that given her hard feelings, she didn’t think she’d be throwing out compliments so freely.
The menu, which changes frequently, had three types of stews, all of which were gluten-free and can be prepared vegetarian or vegan.
The ghormeh sabzi ($8) made with lamb, kidney beans, and dried lemon, was slow cooked with parsley, cilantro and green onion, and served with basmati rice. Of the three entrees we tried, this was the clear winner, with tender, delicious meat, perfectly cooked beans and a great flavor from an abundance of herbs.
My companion asked for salt and also doctored it up with some yogurt sauce and a fiery-hot condiment, both of which were served with another dish. I thought it could stand on its own.
The khoresh-e-gheimeh ($8) was also excellent with yellow split peas in a tomato-based sauce infused with turmeric. It was studded with potatoes and ground beef.
There are no appetizers, so for variety’s sake, we ordered a third meal, kuku ($8), a thin soufflé made with what the menu said were organic eggs and seasonal vegetables. In this case, it seemed to just be spinach and green onion, which was fine.
During a phone call later, Borokhim told me it had chicken sausage, but I didn’t really detect any meat.
The soufflé seemed like it needed something, a touch of cheese perhaps, or at least some extra volume. It was the dish that came with the spicy peppers and yogurt sauce on the side, but neither of those accoutrements seemed to complement it.
Each entree came with soup or salad. The soup was a pleasing lentil soup with carrot and onion and a hint of tomato. There was some mushy cauliflower that had been cooked so long it disintegrated on the tongue. That’s not a criticism; it worked.
The salad was unusual in that it was composed totally of chopped vegetables — cucumber, green pepper, tomato and red onion — and no lettuce. Lightly tossed in a mint-lime olive oil, the salad was a novel change of pace.
For dessert, the baklava ($1) was simply outstanding and beautifully displayed on a plate with fresh dates, pistachios, and glass tea cups for the orange pekoe tea ($1). You should order it, too, if only for the presentation.
The baklava, Borokhim told us, was made with brown sugar and cardamom. It was soft and moist, and not as sweet and sticky as most.
Careful readers wondering whether I spelled Borokhim’s first name correctly should know that she spells the restaurant’s name differently from her own, so people pronounce the business’ name the right way.
Layla’s is just off the Capitol Square, below the Madison Hostel, in Cafe Costa Rica’s initial location. The small room has four round tables with turquoise chairs that cheerfully suggest the Mediterranean.
The sunny day we visited, the shadows of passersby bounced around the walls outside, fooling us into thinking someone else was about to enter. The restaurant was quiet this day, a Tuesday, with one other customer coming in for takeout.
The bill turned out to be the quirkiest thing about Layla’s. Borokhim — who serves as hostess, cook and server — showed up with a piece of paper torn from a small notebook, where each item was scrawled and priced. It was homegrown and endearing.
Eating at Layla’s makes you feel like you have been invited into Laila’s home for lunch.