A slice of the Middle East 

Maher Abudamous, the dark, slender owner of Layaly, an immaculate Middle Eastern restaurant in the Richmond, happens to be a Palestinian from Jerusalem. For his small, perfect menu, he has plucked the best preparations from across the region — Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Jerusalem — and throws in a few of his own inventions.

I found out about Layaly from a reader, Darcy Fink, who sent me an e-mail with a sense of urgency. It took me five months to get there. Now, after several visits, I understand the reason for her tone.Layaly is so exceptional, yet so underappreciated, that she must have feared for its life. Yet the restaurant continues to delight. The food is impeccably fresh and alive, the surroundings warm and inviting.

Every meal at Layaly should start with meza, the voluptuous appetizer service.

The meza platter ($15), which can be shared by at least two, is the best way to taste all of Layaly’s treasures: superb Lebanese-style tabouli, a fluffy salad made mostly of chopped parsley with just a little chewy cracked wheat for texture; Jerusalem-style hummus with deep, integrated flavor and a velvety texture; Jerusalem-style falafel, so light and crumbly with a crisp, dark brown exterior; haydari, thick, rich Lebanese yogurt seasoned with garlic, dried mint and dill.

And that’s just half of the plate! Layaly’s baba ganous, smooth eggplant puree, is tart and gently smoky. A thicker puree of mashed banana squash with tahini, the owner’s creation, demonstrates the balance of all the cooking here. Vibrant and refreshing ezme is a juicy Turkish chopped salad of red peppers, tomatoes and eggplant.

Cured black olives, lines of rusty red sumac and triangles of warm pita bread accompany. Your own little plate filled with each of these looks as colorful and appealing as the big platter of this brilliant communal dish.

I’d cross town for Layaly’s clear, naturally flavorful chicken broth with hunks of robust celery, carrot and chicken served with a lemon wedge ($4). I also love the Lebanese-style kebeh ($6), as light and crumbly as the falafel, but made with ground lamb and cracked wheat. Include them in your meze.

Then, share kofta kebab ($15), no fewer than five generous skewers of soft-textured ground lamb and beef, hot and juicy from the grill, served with cucumber and yogurt dipping sauce and tasty rice pilaf dotted with browned orzo. The kebabs also come with a lacy green salad with bits of fresh, white cheese,dressed in olive oil and lemon.

For dessert, have buttery, house-made baklava ($5), that tastes of fresh pistachios; or kunafe ($5), a warm sweet of crisp, shredded filo filled with melted white string cheese. A little cup of medium sweet Turkish coffee ($2) completes the meal.

The small list of fruity red California wines really go with the food. All cost $26. That alone is a miracle.

Located one block west of the renovated 4 Star movie theater and all the action between 24th and 25th avenues, Layaly is easy to miss. When you find it, hidden in the middle of a residential block, you marvel. Cars double park to pick up orders to go, but the real pleasure is a full meal in Layaly’s welcoming dining room. Hospitality at this level deserves a long, personal visit.

Patricia Unterman is author of the "San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide" and a newsletter, "Unterman on Food." Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

LAYALY

Location: 2435 Clement St. (at 26th Avenue), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 668-1676

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Price range: Appetizers and salads $4 to $6; entrees $11 to $17

Recommended dishes: All the mezze, kofta kebab, falafel, kebeh, chicken soup, stuffed eggplant, baklava

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Reservations: Accepted

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Patricia Unterman

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