Smile Politely

Layalina Mediterranean Grill serves great food

Last weekend I visited Layalina Mediterranean Grill for the third time. Layalina first opened on Springfield Avenue in Champaign last November in the space formerly occupied by Mas Amigos. My first visit was a few days after the restaurant had opened. The food was really, really, good, but the service, décor, and general ambiance were terrible. A few days after opening, a fire claimed the entire building. In February of this year, Layalina reopened in the space formerly occupied by Minneci’s (Springfield and First, Champaign).

My second visit was in February, shortly after it reopened in the new location at 401 South First Street, the old Minneci’s. Parking over there is a bit awkward, and the building isn’t particularly beautiful. The mauve/beige faux stucco interior and exterior 2walls never screamed welcoming Mediterranean eatery (regardless of which part of the Mediterranean was referenced). There aren’t any windows, which I find generally unnerving. I went out with five other people that night, and the food was again delicious, the portions generous. The service, on the other hand, was nothing short of a mess. Some appetizers weren’t ever brought to the table, and some entrées came out immediately after the appetizers, while others took entirely way too long. There were a few other issues, mainly related to lack of attention from the server and some challenges in splitting the check. Despite these service-related concerns, the food was good enough to lure me back, albeit after they found a more successful rhythm in service.

Last weekend I rounded up a couple of friends to check it out again. The staff was incredibly accommodating: we had initially thought we would be a group of nine, but ended up with only five people. We had called ahead for seating, which seemed to be a good idea as the restaurant was respectably full; I’m not sure we would have had a table if we showed up with seven or nine in tow. We were seated immediately and without having to wait for everyone to arrive.

The menu has your basic sections — appetizers, entrées, sandwiches, sides — and it also has a vegetarian section and a halal section. This makes finding your desired meals a little easier if you’re looking for either of those options. Vegetarian entrées are a bit cheaper than meat, of course, and halal entrées are priced the same. Appetizers ranged in price from $4.99 to $9.99; sandwiches and salads, $4.99 to $7.99; entrées $11.99 to $18.99, with a mixed grill platter (recommended for 5 people) at $74.99. The price tag on the mixed grill platter seems high at first glance, but some quick math reveals that it is indeed a deal. If you’ve got a crowd, I’m confident that one or two of those bad boys would leave everyone satisfied. Entrées come with a heaping portion of rice and a few grilled vegetables.

After looking over the menu for a few minutes, we ordered the Layalina sample plate appetizer ($9.99), which consisted of two stuffed grape leaves, three pieces of falafel, chopped Arabic salad, hummus, baba ghanouj, and a skewer of grilled veggies. As I write this, I just realized that our plate did not include the skewer of grilled veggies, but since I’m only just realizing it, clearly they weren’t missed. We also ordered an extra side of hummus; it was very beautifully garnished. A little basket of pita bread arrived, too, with exactly five pieces. The pocket bread was good enough, but there wasn’t anything particularly incredible about it. When we ran out, the server was more than happy to bring us some more.

The falafel was delicious. It was hot and fresh, but not at all oily or greasy. It was well seasoned and smooth in texture. This is consistent from the previous two times I had it. The hummus was good, too. It was smooth, but was lacking a little in flavor, or perhaps had a bit too much tahini — I wanted a bit more acid. The baba ghanouj, on the other hand, was delicious: lemony, bright, creamy. The creaminess and the neutrally-flavored pita bread mellowed the tartness of the acid. If you’re only going to order one dip, you must order the baba ghanouj. There was a little bit of chopped Arabic salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, onion; see also: Israeli salad) on the plate, too. All of these items were delicious with the pita bread, and could have easily been a nice lunch or light dinner.

I ordered the kufta kebab entrée ($12.99), which was a mixture of ground beef and ground lamb, spices, and in this case, an ample amount of garlic. The mixture was well seasoned, although garlicky. The meat was moist (but cooked through), with grill char deliciousness on the outside. It was served with a few pieces of grilled peppers, which were inconsequential. Every entrée comes with two different types of rice: one is a sweet, saffron-based rice, and the other is an earthy, slightly spicy rice topped with slivered almonds. Both are incredibly delicious and well cooked. The rice was inherently sweet (likely basmati or jasmine), and cooked so that the integrity of each grain remained in tact. The slivered almonds were a welcome textural shift that mimicked that of the rice: the slight crunch of the exterior gave way to a soft, chewy interior.

My husband ordered the chicken shish tawook (grilled chicken skewers, $11.99). The chicken pieces were surprisingly moist and very well seasoned. He also had the rice, and he was generally quite pleased with his meal. My friends ordered lamb kebabs ($18.99), a schawerma plate ($11.99), and a beef kebab sandwich ($5.99). Everyone was pleased with her or his dishes, and from the bites I managed to steal, each were delicious and well seasoned. The portions were more than generous, and despite my best efforts to clean my plate, I had to pack up some leftovers.

For research purposes, I ordered the baklava ($1.99) even though I was more than full. It was super sweet, nutty, and generally tasty. The walnuts were finely chopped, and there was a gooey syrup that had settled along the bottom. I’ve had baklava all sorts of different ways, and this one was a little more gooey than I’d like. Although the flavors were good, the texture wasn’t all that pleasing to me. It seemed just slightly undercooked: the bottom was a little soggy, and the top layer of phyllo dough was lacking crispy flakiness.

Other dessert options last weekend included imthabak (phyllo-wrapped sweet cheese and pistachio, $2.49), kanafeh (sweet cheese topped with shredded phyllo dough, $3.99), Greek yogurt cheesecake ($3.99), and black cherry ricotta cheesecake (sold out on my visit unfortunately, $3.99).

In the end, we all had a delightful, delicious meal. Each time I’ve visited, the food has been consistently good — really good. The décor and, more importantly, the service, have improved, too. On this occasion, we didn’t have small plates when the appetizer plate arrived (hence the falafel on the napkin). When our waiter returned, we asked for some plates and he immediately got some. Splitting the check was easier this time, and the staff was more than willing to work with us do to so. There are a few tables for outdoor seating, which could be quite lovely once the students go home and the weather warms. You should note that Layalina does not serve alcohol.

I’m really excited about having a consistently good Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant in town. Layalina is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., which means you can get your flavor fix at just about any time of the day.

Layalina Mediterranean Grill is located at 401 S. First Street, Champaign (corner of First and Springfield). For daily specials, follow its Facebook page (although it doesn’t appear to be updated all that regularly).

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