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Persia comes to Hagerstown

Laila's Kitchen is low-key and enjoyable

Laila's Kitchen is low-key and enjoyable

June 10, 2007|By SAVORY SAM

Anyone who likes to try new flavors and new cuisines should visit Laila's Kitchen, a new downtown eatery that serves Persian-influenced food and drink in a tidy, low-key setting.

Laila's Kitchen is an interesting mix. The setting is spare, even austere - a black-and-white motif is somewhat softened by two green tea-colored walls and a lemon-colored daybed-sofa. Small black-and-white 1930s-era photos break up the white of the walls.

The dcor is chilly, but the cafe's atmosphere is as warm as a family living room. Owners Sharif and Laila Basharyar are conversational and considerate. Visiting the restaurant feels like being invited into their home. Diners are welcomed as guests.

The short menu features Persian specialties - homemade yogurt, kabobs, shir-chai (salt tea) - and Persian flavors - rose water, pistachios, sumac, hot pepper, mint, honey and more.

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Laila's is open early for breakfast. An omelet of the day is on the menu, along with an egg sandwich, bagels, muffins and a homemade-yogurt-and-berry parfait.

The main offerings at lunch are kabobs served with rice or warm, home-baked pita bread. Grilled chicken kabobs feature light-orange chunks of marinated meat. Koobidah is a traditional southwest Asian dish in which ground beef is seasoned and wrapped around a sword-shaped skewer and grilled; Laila's koobidah kabobs are flavorful but not spicy-hot. Sauted kabobs feature chicken or tenderloin chunks served with slices of onion, tomato and bell pepper. The veggie kabob includes a variety of flame-broiled vegetables.

All kabobs are served with a dollop of minty, chopped tomato-cucumber-onion salad and a small cup of chutney yogurt for dipping.

Try the rice. It's light, fragrant basmati rice, and it's outstanding - slender, long-grained rice rinsed before steaming to keep it from clumping, then served with a scoop of saffron-colored rice tossed on top.

The resulting rice is very good.

The Savory Sams tried many of Laila's Persian specialties. The pitas are freshly made and excellent. A saut of eggplant and bell pepper is spicy and good. The shir-chai tea is delicious - hot, pale peach-colored, lightly spiced and creamy. Laila's baklava - a popular Middle Eastern dessert made from nuts, honey and phyllo dough - is very good. The baklava at many restaurants is syrupy sweet and dripping with honey; Laila's is drier, nuttier and deeply flavored rather than simply sweet.

Another sweet treat with a Persian touch is Laila's ice cream dream dessert - French vanilla served with a spoonful of rose water and a scattering of chopped pistachios. Delicious, but eating something that smells like roses might take some by surprise.

Overall, this is a delightful eatery for lunch or afternoon tea. Laila's offers exotic dishes and flavors in a modest setting with gracious, personal hosts.

But that modest tone comes with a few drawbacks. The menu is short; repeat visits offer little exploration. Flavors are zesty but typically mild; we wanted something spicy-hot to complement the milder dishes.

Grilled meat is tasty but tends to be dry. Sauces would help, but on the table are salt and pepper and two Persian spice blends - ground sumac berries, and a hotter, currylike mix created by Laila. Sprinkling dry spice on dry rice and meat is not an ideal solution. When asked, Laila provided a green, vinegar-based version made of mint, cilantro and paprika; it had plenty of kick.

Still, the menu is exotic, and the food is tasty, even if it doesn't get as spicy-hot as the Savory Sams like.

For a downtown lunch-and-hot beverage shop, Laila's Kitchen is a hit. Prices are reasonable. The food is fresh and well-prepared. And the Basharyars are hospitable. Step into their dining room for a taste of Persia.

Savory Sam is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Laila's Kitchen



4 stars out of 5

Food: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Service: 5 stars

Ambience: 4 stars

Address: 4 E. Franklin St., Hagerstown

Hours: Laila's Kitchen is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and tea Monday through Friday.

Type: Persian version of a sandwich shop

Prices: Breakfast, $2.99 to $4.99; lunch, $4.99 to $8.99; side soup or salad $3.99; sweet treats, $2 or $3; shir-chai, $2.25

Phone: 301-797-9494

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