The samkeh harra at Leyla is a delight. It's a whole sea bass that's marinated then broiled. The head and tail are presented on the plate, crisped by the broiler's heat into almost nothingness, while the spine is nowhere to be found. Instead, two thick filets and their crispy skin have been slipped neatly off the bone and positioned on either side of a long bed of white rice.
Those filets are blanketed in a bright orange sauce that's fiery hot, but there's a beguiling richness to it, too. That sauce is flavored with tahini and cilantro and flecked with bits of onions, peppers, and garlic that are lightly sauteed so they're still slightly crisp. The heat will leave your tongue and lips tingling, but it's a great balance for the delicate fish with the crunch of well-crisped skin at the bottom of it all.
It's the kind of dish I would love to eat all the time, but there's just one problem: It costs $38.
And that, for me, is the fundamental question about Leyla. The food is indisputably delicious and luxurious, but can the restaurant pull off the high-end format for which it is clearly aiming?
The scale of the menu itself is ambitious, offering 20 cold mezza (appetizers), almost a dozen hot ones, plus a dozen soups and salads. And all that's before you get to the entrees, which include an array of kebabs, shawarma, and fish preparations.
That wide variety leads to a sort of crescendo of a meal, one that starts in a pretty good place and rises to a higher and higher pitch. Small green olives and bright pink chunks of pickled turnip arrive in a pair of white bowls as a complementary starter. The olives are quite nice, but the pickled turnips pucker with vinegar. Fortunately, that's about the only off-note to be found.
The hummus ($7) is smooth, rich, and tinged with lemon, and for an extra buck you can get it the chef's way, with whole garbanzos mixed in and a generous pool of fruity olive oil and whole pine nuts garnishing the top. The kibbeh ($10) — egg-shaped balls of spiced beef rolled in cracked wheat and fried — are perfectly crisp on the outside, and splendidly fragrant inside, and studded with whole pine nuts, too.
A special section of the mezza menu is labeled "Adventurous Territory," and it includes pan-fried frog legs ($13) and lamb tongue ($13) served warm with onion and garlic or cold with a lemon oil dressing. Most intriguing of all is batrakh ($20), a Mediterranean caviar made from sun-dried and salt-cured gray mullet roe. It's hard to steer into those waters, amid the already overwhelming array of tempting mezza, especially when even the seemingly mundane dishes are elevated by surprising little twists.
At first glance, the kellej halloumi ($9) seems to be a Mediterranean take on a quesadilla — white cheese melted between triangles of toasted pita, each topped with a slice of tomato and a whole olive. But the cheese is imported halloumi made from sheep's milk, and it's liberally dusted with spices, creating a pleasantly chewy and savory filling.
The kebabs are impressive, too. The marinated lamb tenderloin ($26) has a wonderful texture and is infused with fragrant spices. The beef ($24) is equally floral, with nice bits of char from the grill balanced by minty accents. The accompanying rice has a wonderful nutty, buttery flavor, and the wedges of antakali bread, with their thick layer of bright red seasoning, go quite nicely with the meat.
Instead of rice, the kebabs and seafood dishes can be ordered with steamed vegetables (which include carrots, broccoli, and zucchini) or — in what struck me as an odd twist at first — french fries. But it turns out that fries are quite a popular side dish in Lebanon, and even more unexpected is that Leyla's are really good: thinly cut with strips of skins still on and fried till perfectly golden brown (but, still no match for the rice).
In design, the restaurant aims high, too, and the decor slants far more toward the elegant than the exotic. The tables flanking both walls have banquette seating on one side, stylish wooden chairs on the other. One of the long side walls is exposed brick adorned with mirrors, lit by small recessed lights in the dark ceiling. On each table, brown cloth napkins, folded into vertical triangles, await atop white plates alongside gleaming flatware, a single flower in a tall cylindrical vase sits in the center.
Amid this elegance, the service doesn't quite keep pace. The servers are friendly and knowledgeable of the menu, but they don't rise to the level of attentive professionalism that one expects from a fine-dining restaurant in Charleston, and the rhythm between courses is noticeably slow.
But the unexpected flavor and quality of what arrives on the plates goes a long way toward allaying such quibbles. In fact, if you want to dine like a king, Leyla might just be the place to do it.
There are two group sampler platters for which you pay by the person (with a two-person minimum) and receive an assortment of small dishes from the mezza menu. The vegetarian ($25 per person) offers 10 different selections, while the royal sampler ($35 per person) offers a staggering 14 dishes — perfect for sharing alongside some lemony Almaza pilsners.
If you want to throw entrees into the mix, there's a set menu for groups ($40 per person) which has all the mezza from the vegetarian platter plus two types of kebabs and dessert. The Royal Set Menu ($50 per person) tosses in a couple more mezza and a third kebab, too. Any of these will fill your table with white bowls and plates with a richness of delights to explore and share.
I think the jury's still out on whether Charleston will prove amenable to such novel fare in a decidedly high-end category. But because of the bold, surprising flavors and the sheer variety of the offering at Leyla, I hope a good number of diners at least give it a shot.