The Spice is Right

dining lailiiDowntown’s Laili celebrates the flavors of the Mediterranean

The final weeks of summer sift through my crossed fingers as I hope for another beautiful fall. It is the time of year when I most appreciate al fresco dining, I thought, as I relaxed on the patio of Laili, whose restaurant celebrates Silk Road flavors.

The Silk Road was a network of routes that linked Europe to China by way of the Middle East for 3,000 years. It served as a conduit of trade, not only for goods but for ideas and technology. Fortunately for us, and the numerous cultures along the Road, the spices that traveled through revolutionized each cuisine.

Laili’s tiny front door opens into a voluminous space, elegantly appointed with well-spaced tables set with sparkling glassware. I walked by the long stainless steel counter which surrounds the slender open kitchen on my way to the courtyard. Vines cover the sides of the surrounding tall buildings, and unfurling fronds of ferns shade fuchsias. The lunch menu has expanded since my last visit, now offering salads ($9 to $21) and entrées ($10 to $18).

A dinner plate-sized sheet of hot, pliable, herb-flecked naan bread was served with tabbouleh, in which cucumber, tomato, parsley and garlic steeped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The Pumpkin Boranee ($8) appetizer followed in short order. Bright, sweet cubes of beta carotene-rich squash, spiked with garlic and sprinkled with dried mint and red pepper, sat on a bed of qurut yogurt.

Qurut is yogurt which has been salted and dried in order to preserve it for use during the hot Middle Eastern months. Reconstituted with water, it can be drunk as a beverage or eaten again as yogurt.

Spiced lamb was folded into Naan bread with peppery wild arugula, onions and tomatoes in the modest Lamb Wrap ($10).

The Grilled Chicken Flatbread ($9.50) presented an amazing array of tastes and textures. Thin rectangular bread, browned well on the underside, was spread with tart apricot purée and topped with sweet slices of Medjool dates, thin strips of mint, popping red pomegranate seeds, and minced chicken flavored with a syrupy sweet and sour sauce.

Sweet marinated pieces of Pomegranate Chicken Kabob ($12) were served with basmati rice and arugula.

Laili’s kitchen now makes its own pasta, which I enjoyed with the daily special ($14). Wide ribbons of tender, translucent pasta with a light tomato-basil sauce were tossed with local king salmon and capers, which provided a tart counterpoint to the fish from a salty sea.

Cardamom, a peppery and rather bitter seed, is used sparingly, and with good effect, in many Near and Middle Eastern desserts. Laili’s Cardamom Crème Brûlée ($6) was a masterful example. Under the thick, evenly caramelized, mirror-like melted sugar crust was creamy, butter-colored custard with fine powdery flecks of the savory spice. dining laili

Laili’s dinner menu is more substantial, including a list of traditional entrées ($15 to $26). The wine list now offers a wide range of options.

We each began with steaming bowls of Maush-awa ($8). The hearty tomato-based Afghan soup held tiny lentils and shelling beans with tender bits of lamb. It was topped with qurut yogurt and a delicate sprinkle of dried mint. Lamb Tenderloin Kebab ($26) was plated with vegetables and long grain Kabuli rice. The trio of unique sauces turned the meal into an adventure; crisply flavored cilantro purée, qurut yogurt, and spicy apricot chutney.

In the mood for a tapas-type meal, I ordered the Silk Road Plate ($8). Smooth hummus, rich with the toasted flavor of sesame seed tahini was drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fine red pepper. On warm naan, I spread the purée of Arab Babaghanoush, which tasted like a smoky eggplant curry. The colorful tabbouleh, with more parsley than wheat, was wonderfully sharp with fresh garlic. The cucumber and pepper-spiced yogurt made the perfect dip.

Laili’s proprietor, Ahmad Amin has been in the restaurant business since 1977, and since incorporating, has run 360 degree Gourmet Burrito restaurants in the East Bay, San Francisco and at numerous Airports, a part of whose proceeds have benefitted organizations which feed the needy.

Laili, Silk Road Flavors, 101B Cooper St., Santa Cruz, 423-4545. Beer and wine. Open daily, serving lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., and dinner from 5 p.m. until close. Visit lailirestaurant.com

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