by Ian Froeb
This week I visit Layla Lebanese Restaurant (4317 Manchester Avenue; 314-535-5500) in Forest Park Southeast's Grove district. A sneak preview of my review after the jump.
Makdous is a baby eggplant cured in olive oil and then stuffed with spiced walnuts, garlic and red pepper. You might not notice the dish on your maiden voyage through the menu at Layla Lebanese Restaurant. It's listed toward the end of the cold appetizers, after better-known dishes (hummus, baba gannoujh, tabbouleh...). I didn't order it until my last visit to this two-month-old restaurant in Forest Park Southeast's Grove district.
The server returned a couple of minutes later to tell me the kitchen was out of makdous. No big deal. Busy Saturday evening, every table occupied, belly dancer shimmying hither and yon. But I really wanted to try that makdous; it was, I realized, the only dish on Layla's menu that I'd never tried at some other Middle Eastern restaurant.
So a few days later I went back to Layla, solely for the makdous. The server said, "We are out of one thing today." I braced myself for the inevitable (and the exquisitely galling form of disappointment that sets in when one has nobody to blame but oneself), but he was pointing to a different cold appetizer, the stuffed grape leaves (warek inab). Makdous? Yes, we have makdous this afternoon.
OK, it isn't the most visually appealing dish. Then again, that's eggplant for you: So seductively packaged by nature; so easily rendered barfy looking. The stuffed eggplant, sliced crosswise into bite-size rounds, is wrinkled and gray. Picture elephant skin. But don't be dissuaded. The flavor is remarkable, the eggplant's astringent, faint bitterness yielding to the mild spiciness of the stuffing, which transcends the flavors of its ingredients in a way that's impossible to quite pin down.
Visit Gut Check tomorrow to read the rest of my review.