Layla's Persian Food is a cheery, quirky basement space appointed with eclectic odds and ends -- mirrors, rugs, mismatched furniture and bright French blue chairs. It's hidden away under the Madison Hostel, and the small room holds a scant handful of tables. It's the kind of spot where personal friends of the proprietor, Laila Borokhim, are always just dropping by. But then, no one remains a stranger here for long.
Chef, waitress and chief bottle washer, Borokhim is positively buoyant, extending a warm greeting to all. There isn't a hint of pretense or formality, and the space is less restaurant than private living room. Regular customers are hooked, following the establishment's Facebook page for specials and hours (more on that later).
The daughter of an Iranian Jew -- her father owns Borokhim's Oriental Rugs on Monroe Street -- Laila grew up with the cuisine of her paternal grandmother, who lived down the street when she was young. Note that Persian cuisine isn't Mediterranean. There's no hummus or falafel. It's more reminiscent of Pakistani or Afghani food, with the sweetness and texture of dried fruits or nuts set off by meat and vegetables.
But it's also distinct from "Arabic" cuisine, featuring its own particular techniques and ingredients. There's a lot of pomegranate, pistachio, rose water, cardamom and saffron, as well as greens, with many dishes resembling well-balanced one-pot meals. It's a difficult cuisine to find in the U.S., except in Los Angeles, where it's ubiquitous.
Unique in Madison's dining landscape, Layla's (Laila changed the spelling of her name for the restaurant so it would be easier to pronounce) offers a slowly revolving host of classic dishes: ghormeh sabzi, Iran's default national dish, a stew of herbaceous greens with lamb; fesenjoon, chicken in a walnut and pomegranate sauce; and perhaps the most distinctive of all, sabzi kuku, a brilliant green spinach soufflé.
The easiest time to catch Layla's in action is during the work week at lunch. The menu consists of roughly six options plus an occasional special. The aforementioned classics are available as well as chicken or lamb kebabs and a vegan dish of split peas and eggplant with fried potatoes called khoresh e ghemeh bademjan. It's a highlight, with smoky eggplant giving depth of flavor to a tomato and turmeric-rich sauce. It can be split with any of the other offerings, and makes an ideal companion to fesenjoon, balancing that dish's sweet meatiness. Vegans and vegetarians should know that Layla's is accommodating to other animal-free dining requests.
Included with lunch is a bright, lively cucumber and tomato salad -- if it's on hand. Otherwise there may be a soup appetizer instead, such as a warming lentil stew with greens. An entrée-sized soup called ash reshteh is sometimes available as well, a hefty bowl of beans, greens, egg noodles and caramelized onions. It's precisely the kind of dish Grandma would make, if your grandma were the type to sprinkle a dash of ground sumac on your yogurt. This is homemade comfort food and deeply satisfying.
In fact, all meals are comfort food here, with large portions and an extra helping of personal service from the cook herself. The soups are rich and have simmered for a long time, the kebabs are always moist and tender, and the salads are crisp and fresh.
Dinner, and the equally elusive breakfast, can be a bit of a chase. Check the restaurant's page on Facebook to see what's offered when, or call 608-216-4511. Laila is currently offering dinner every other week, although that might mean Wednesday and Friday and Saturday, or some other combination of days. As of this writing dinner will next be available this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 12-13. Given the sporadic hours, traffic at Layla's is still surprisingly steady.
The dinner menu is only slightly larger than lunch, including a shareable appetizer platter. On a recent visit it featured chicken liver paté, delicious and rich lamb-stuffed dates, yogurt with hot chili sauce, sweet potato purée with pistachios, zingy pickled cauliflower, some forgettable dinner rolls and decent but dry sesame bread.
The real star of the platter was a kind of cauliflower "cigar," which consisted of the vegetable chopped and then wrapped in a wonton wrapper and deep-fried. Crispy with an earthy, slightly mushy center, this was so addictive we immediately ordered another round.
Equally epic, the sole dessert, baklava, is not to be missed. Thick and toothy on the bottom while light and flaky on top, it has honeyed flavor without being cloying.
There are drawbacks to such an idiosyncratic setup. Sometimes the greens have a bit of grit, or the otherwise aromatic and fluffy saffron rice is dried out. A few specials have seemed more experimental than accomplished. But these problems don't add up to much at this Persian burrow, a spot that feels like a throwback to an earlier, funkier Madison. There is so much charm and heart here that you might find yourself frequently also just dropping by.