A boxy room on the backside of a Chantilly shopping strip doesn't seem like the kind of space that can carry off the theme of the classic tale Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, variously known in English as the Arabian Nights or 1001 Nights, though more correctly it translates into one thousand nights and a night.
The tales, which according to tradition are the stories told by Scheherazade each night to keep the sultan Schahriar from killing her and other potential wives, are the stuff of magic and mystery.
Little by little, since it opened in August, owner Sam Ayesh has transformed his restaurant with the mystical name Alf Laylah Wa Laylah into an inviting refuge. The deep burgundy walls give way to a vivid mural covering one wall. At one end, it depicts a hookah bar, with patrons entering and sitting around, smoking the large glass pipe. The other end illustrates a Middle Eastern village, with tribesmen and residents milling about.
Along the opposite wall are three areas with low couches piled high with pillows, where diners can smoke a hookah stocked with a variety of flavored tobaccos. And on weekend nights, customers are entertained with Arabic music and belly dancers.
In the brilliant daylight of a spring afternoon, Alf Laylah Wa Laylah isn't quite so atmospheric, but a smoking a hookah isn't the only reason to visit. This is a Middle Eastern oasis unlike any in the immediate area.
Ayesh, a veteran of the restaurant business, said he wanted to open a Middle Eastern restaurant near his suburban home that would rival those in downtown Washington. Though a Palestinian whose family hails from near Ramallah, Ayesh has chosen a Turkish chef to re-create his ancestral food.
There are few surprises on the menu, except perhaps the innocent-looking cucumber pickles that actually pack a fiery punch, but the grilled meats are especially juicy and flavorful.
There are more than a dozen appetizers, more than enough from which to create your own mezze, a traditional opening course composed of many different appetizers. The kibbeh (fresh ground beef sauteed with onions and pine nuts, then encased in bulgur to form pointed mini footballs) are the star of the lot. The outside is firm and virtually greaseless, while the inside is moist and mildly spiced.
Warm halloumi cheese, made from goat's milk with a hint of mint, is grainy and salty. There are also meat pies and spinach pies, with fresh pita-style dough as their base. The meat pie filling tasted similar to the filling of the kibbeh, though it could have been more strongly spiced. And the spinach pie, lacking the feta of the more familiar Greek version, seemed a little flat, though the hints of lemon and sumac were some compensation.
Fattoush, a salad that includes tomatoes, cucumber, onions and fried bits of pita, could have used a heavier hand with the seasonings. And I like my hummus with more garlic and lemon. But the combination made a lovely beginning, and the restaurant's appetizer sampler (enough for four people) would be a grand way to start an evening.
Most of the grilled meat dishes are available either as sandwiches (pita loaves stuffed so full you can barely squeeze them into your mouth) or as entrees, served with delicious rice.
All of the meats are marinated, often in tahini (sesame) or yogurt sauces, and all are better for it. The shish taouk (chicken shish kebab), saffron-colored and charred just on the edges, is juicy on the inside. The lamb and beef shish kebabs are just as good. But the kafta kebab (a mixture of ground beef and lamb shaped into a patty and grilled) is the best of all. And the garlic sauce that accompanies them all is pungent and a wonderful complement to the meats.
The chicken and beef shawarma (slivers of meat carved from an upright rotisserie) both seemed a little dry as entrees, but are transformed when swaddled as a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, those fiery pickles and a touch of garlic in a loaf of pita.
Vegetarians will find hummus, falafel and meatless moussaka on the menu. And for less adventurous diners, there is New York strip steak.
The best desserts are Middle Eastern classics, such as baklava and kenafa, a brilliant orange confection of sweet cheese coated with shredded phyllo and a sweet honey sauce.
Alf Laylah Wa Laylah 13975 Metro Tech Dr., Chantilly, 703-378-6677. Hours: 3 p.m. to midnight Sundays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. $10 cover charge on Friday and Saturday nights for entertainment. Appetizers for lunch or dinner, $3.50 to $6.95; main courses, $7 to $15. Handicapped-accessible.
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