Although Leyla’s planned weekend opening was delayed by the Labor Day holiday, the downtown Lebanese restaurant should be in business this week.
While awaiting the certificate of occupancy, Dolly Awkar and her husband, Joseph, trained servers, many of whom have no previous experience with Middle Eastern cookery.
Awkar, a first-time restaurateur, said she switched from selling rugs to hawking hummus because her accent prompted so many customers to ask where they could find food from her native country.
The couple also held daily tastings of dishes created by chef Vatche Meguerdichian.
Meguerdichian previously helmed Los Angeles’ Alcazar, named one of the city’s 99 essential restaurants in 2011 by critic Jonathan Gold.
Gold wrote in the L.A. Weekly, “Alcazar is one of the finest Middle Eastern kitchens in Los Angeles.”
Gold described Meguerdichian, who understandably goes by “Vatche” professionally, as “a well-known Armenian crooner.”
He may have understated the case.
“If you’ve ever attended an Armenian gathering, no matter if you were in Los Angeles, Beirut, Cyprus or Tehran, chances are you know Vatche, the Armenian singer who switches from hits in Greek, Italian, Arabic, Persian, Spanish and English,” reported Ianyan, an English-language Armenian newspaper, in 2009.
According to vatche.com, Meguerdichian recorded his first album in 1983, and later played the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and multiple venues in Atlantic City. The website calls him “a pop icon of international stature”; Awkar calls him a friend “from a long, long time.”
There’s no word on whether Meguerdichian will perform at Leyla, as he sometimes did at Alcazar. But the Awkars have allowed him to reserve a corner of the menu for “adventurous territory.” Although the lamb testicles and beef brains that were big sellers in L.A. may not soon show up on King Street, Awkar promises frog legs, chicken livers, quail, beef tongue and kibbe, the classic raw beef dish.
But the Awkars also are striving to accommodate more conservative palates, putting salmon on the entree menu and offering creme brulee alongside baklava and awamat.
“We want to have something for everybody,” Awkar says. “Whoever comes, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, meat lover.”
The menu also will feature shawarma, kebabs, meat pies, spinach pie, kofta, falafel and nearly every other dish you may have previously encountered in a Middle Eastern restaurant. “It’s a big menu,” Awkar says.
Although the restaurant’s location and regionally unique cuisine should help draw plenty of customers, Awkar says the downside of being the city’s only Lebanese restaurant is patrons won’t have a point of comparison.
“There is no benchmark,” Awkar says. “But I know it’s going to be very good.”
Leyla will be open every day at 298 King St. from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. .
Limehouse Produce’s latest promotion comes with a sizable prize package and an important safety warning: Don’t try to photograph the grower’s newest truck while you’re driving.
But assuming you’re well out of harm’s way, Limehouse is looking for snapshots of the newest addition to its fleet, a truck decorated with cartoon-style produce characters.
Shutterbugs who submit a picture of the truck on its delivery route are eligible to win tickets to the Charleston Wine + Food Festival launch party; tickets to the Charleston Restaurant Association’s Taste of Charleston; Limehouse apparel and bags of vegetables.
Entries can be submitted via Limehouse’s Facebook page or Instagram account.
One winner will be randomly chosen each week through Sept. 27. Learn more at limehouseproduce.com.
Callie’s Biscuit contest
Hot on the wheels of Limehouse Produce’s photograph-our-truck promotion comes another contest involving an oversized vehicle, this one sponsored by Callie’s Biscuits.
In conjunction with the fall release of owner Carrie Morey’s book, “Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions: Heirloom Recipes From Our Family Kitchen,” the bakery recently purchased a used Coachman RV. While the company’s taking care of the clean-up, it’s looking to customers to supply the perfect name for the promotional vehicle.
The person who provides the best name will receive four dozen biscuits, delivered by the RV. To enter, post your suggestion in the comments section of Callie’s Biscuits’ blog at calliesbiscuits.com.
Cinebarre adds full bar
This may count as second-run news, but for someone who’s previously lived in two other cities with a Cinebarre and never been able to enjoy a martini at the movies, it’s a big deal to discover the Mount Pleasant location now offers liquor drinks.
The Asheville-based dinner-and-a-movie chain last month underscored the “bar” in Cinebarre by adding spirits to its beverage service. Previously, the theater served margaritas and other pseudo-mixed drinks made with wine.
The new cocktail menu features 16 drinks, priced at $9-$10, including a Charleston Tea made with sweet tea vodka and a Dark & Stormy finished with fresh lime. There’s also a lineup of “grown-up milkshakes” blended with vodka.
For more information, go to cinebarre.com.
With a single dish order, Charleston eaters this fall can support the work of two charitable organizations.
During the annual James Beard Foundation Taste America Local Dish Challenge, which runs from Sept. 1-Oct. 31, the foundation’s education department will collect $1 for every featured dish sold at one of 11 area restaurants.
Additionally, diners are being asked to Instagram the JBF dish with the hashtags #JBFTasteAmerican and #Charleston. The city that produces the most Instagram images will receive the greater of $10,000 or 10 percent of the money raised nationally.
The money’s earmarked for a cause selected by participating chefs. In Charleston, Feed the Need has been selected as the potential recipient.
Restaurants in 35 states and the District of Columbia are joining the effort. Locally, they include Fish, O-Ku, Cypress, Fleet Landing Restaurant, Indaco, Oak Steakhouse, Poogan’s Porch, The Grocery, The Macintosh, Tristan and Wild Olive.
For more information, go to www.jbftasteamerica.org/local-dish.
Chuck tours King St.
If Chuck Hughes, host of Cooking Channel’s “Chuck’s Eat the Street,” had his druthers, an upcoming episode focused on King Street would have dedicated a segment to The Ordinary.
The filming marked Hughes’ first visit to Charleston, and he chose Mike Lata’s newest restaurant, recently named one of the South’s best new restaurants by Southern Living, for his maiden meal.
“Looking at the restaurant, I didn’t think it could be as good as I thought it was going to be,” he says.
The restaurant surpassed his expectations, but since the shooting schedule couldn’t be adjusted, the Charleston-themed show doesn’t feature any Ordinary footage.
Still, Hughes found plenty to prepare and eat on air, including frogmore stew at Charleston Grill; a chorizo sandwich at Butcher & Bee; goat cheese doughnuts at Glazed and soft-shell crabs at The Grocery.
“Crab has a tendency to be deep-fried and smothered in spicy mayonnaise,” Hughes says. “We did it in a wood oven with salt and pepper. Why alter them so much?”
In Hughes’ estimation, Charleston chefs’ respect for local ingredients and willingness to present them nearly unadorned has earned the city its culinary reputation.
“There’s an honesty in Charleston when it comes to food,” he says. “Nobody’s trying to hide. Instead of a three-tiered plate with fireworks, it’s real honest food.”
Hughes further believes the city’s enthusiastic embrace of plain dishes has helped unite its eaters.
“In so many places, food is a big class divider,” he says. “I get the feeling in Charleston that everybody’s eating the same stuff. Everybody’s eating the shrimp. There’s a sense of community greater than anywhere in the U.S.”
The Charleston episode of “Chuck’s Eat the Street” premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday.
Southern Season deals
Gourmet retailer Southern Season is celebrating Thursday’s opening of its Mount Pleasant store at 730 Coleman Blvd. with nearly two weeks worth of daily promotions.
From Monday-Sept. 19, the store’s marking the opening with daily specials.
On Mondays it will serve up a free scone with the purchase of a large cup of coffee.
On Tuesdays, orders placed by the end-of-day Monday will be delivered via courier to Charleston-area addresses free of charge.
Wednesdays are free gift wrap days, and on Thursday customers can get three deli sides for the price of two.
The grand opening celebration concludes with a Sept. 22 bonanza featuring a Moon Pie-eating contest, a blindfolded jellybean flavor identification competition, a scavenger hunt for kids and a $10 Lowcountry boil.
If what you’re seeking is more information about the festivities, you’ll find it on Southern Season’s website, southernseason.com.
The prix-fixe on Charleston Restaurant Week meals is undeniably a draw for eaters who want to cap their dinner spending at $30 or $40 a person (assuming they’re not drinking.) But local chefs say diners don’t always stick to the program once they’re seated for their three-course meal.
Restaurant Week patrons use the promotional-priced event to “check off restaurants (they) haven’t been to,” says Jeremiah Bacon, executive chef at The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse. And given the opportunity to explore a menu they’ve never before experienced, they’re apt to stray from the melon salad and shrimp-and-grits on the preset Restaurant Week menu and choose dishes from the standard lineup.
According to Bacon, such behavior doesn’t occur as often in very ritzy restaurants: He estimates 80 to 85 percent of Restaurant Week guests at Oak follow through with their plans to order the $40 steak dinner. At The Macintosh, though, “it’s fifty-fifty.”
Bacon says The Macintosh’s price point helps explain the discrepancy. The restaurant also deliberately exposes guests to its regular menu by bolding the Restaurant Week-eligible items instead of printing a separate Restaurant Week sheet.
“I think it works,” Bacon says.
Charleston Restaurant Week started Wednesday and runs through Sept. 15. For more, go to charlestonrestaurantassociation.com.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560 or firstname.lastname@example.org.