- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Step inside Sam and Rima Kodsi’s Layalina on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, and you’re in a world for Scheherazade.

The Kodsis’ little Middle Eastern restaurant, named for their daughter, is wonderfully exotic — from the colorful fabric curtaining windows and walls to the brass lanterns, pictures, camel bags, toys and diverse decorative objects on the walls and in the nooks and crannies of this delightful restaurant.

The walls in the foyer are decorated with the familiar autographed photographs of Washington celebrities, including the president and American soldiers in Iraq.

The Kodsis are perfect hosts, taking their roles seriously — Rima is in the kitchen, and Sam welcomes guests. Mr. Kodsi is Lebanese, and his wife is Syrian; the decorations come from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Every year, Mr. Kodsi goes to Damascus and returns with suitcases filled with spices, which Mrs. Kodsi transforms into dozens of the delicious dishes she prepares.

It’s possible to make a meal of the meze, the appetizers, without ever getting to the main courses. There are dozens of them, some spicy, some mild; some are vegetarian, while others are prepared with meat. Many of the traditional dishes are familiar from other Middle Eastern restaurants, be they Egyptian, Iranian, Jordanian or Israeli, but it is the spicing that makes Layalina unique.

If you’re dining in a group, it’s rewarding to order many of the small dishes and share them, mopping up sauces and purees with the triangles of pita bread.

The menu lists nine sorts of hummus, a smooth chickpea puree, which is served with different toppings or varied ingredients. The excellent plain version is made with tahini sauce, garlic and lemon juice. The variations include a version mixed with crushed walnuts, another topped with pistachios or with pomegranate juice (which adds a pronounced sweet element to the dish), one topped with chicken or beef, and one mixed with a spicy sun-dried-pepper puree. The pepper puree is also made into a dip called “m’hammarah,” which combines the red peppers with walnuts and pomegranate sauce, topped with a bit of olive oil and finely chopped parsley. Delicious, but beware: It’s very hot.

Parsley is used frequently in Layalina’s cooking. It’s the mainstay of tabbouleh, a salad of chopped tomatoes, onions, mint, crushed wheat and parsley, and also of a fine walnut salad that combines the chopped nuts with parsley, onions, garlic and lots of lemon juice. It’s a refreshing combination of textures.

A salad that does not use parsley as its base is the malfoof salad, a Middle Eastern version of coleslaw. It’s crunchy and lightly dressed with lemon and oil, and it combines green and red cabbage.

The moussaka is unlike either the Greek or Turkish version. It is a mild stew of eggplant, chickpeas, onions and tomatoes. Mrs. Kodsi makes three kinds of tomato sauce, each differently spiced and each delicious. Soujok, a house-made slightly spicy beef sausage, is served in one of these wonderful tomato sauces.

Another terrific meze is sauteed eggplant with onions in a sauce of pomegranates, garlic and lemon juice. The menu calls it “fried” eggplant, but it is sauteed, not deep-fried. Fried cauliflower is also a tasty vegetable meze. Although the menu describes the cauliflower as being smothered in a pomegranate, garlic and lemon sauce, it wasn’t. Rather, the sauce was served on the side, leaving the diner to choose.

Other meat meze are kibbeh (ball-shaped deep-fried ground beef); chicken wings in a spicy garlic-cilantro sauce; and baked pita bread stuffed with ground beef, onions, parsley and herbs.

Ground beef, onions, spices and tomatoes are used to fill house-made dough pockets. These fatayer can be ordered filled with the meat mixture, with cheese or with spinach. We tried the latter and found it excellent; the dough is warm and soft, and the filling of spinach and herbs had a slight bitterness reminiscent of chard.

Main courses include house specials and grilled entrees. Among the grilled dishes are lamb and chicken shish kebabs. Both are very good; the meat is tender and not over-cooked, imparting a nice smoky quality. The kebabs are served with roasted vegetables (onions, peppers and tomatoes) and a yogurt garlic sauce. All main courses are served with basmati rice.

Other grilled entrees are shrimp kebabs, salmon and a Cornish hen. Among the specials, Layalina chicken is a fine dish of marinated chicken breast simmered in a pomegranate wine sauce with chickpeas and mushrooms.

There are several versions of lamb shanks, and a pasta of the day is topped with a yogurt sauce and beef or chicken. The pasta is also served as a kind of bland salad in a creamy sauce as part of the meze.

On weekends, Mrs. Kodsi prepares her special, oozi, a rice dish topped with lamb shanks, spices and herbs. On the weekends — or by special order — she prepares kibbeh nayeh, the Lebanese version of steak tartare.

At lunchtime, many of the dishes on the menu are transformed into sandwiches, priced at $8 or $9. Desserts are primarily baklava and other regional pastries, made in house; they can be viewed on a table near the entrance of the restaurant. The wine list is limited, but a very nice Lebanese wine is available by the glass or bottle.

Layalina can be a veritable feast for the palate, for the eyes as your gaze wanders about the room, and for nose as fragrance of the spices wafts from the hot dishes brought to the table. And it’s always fun.

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