Locale Profile: Layali: The VIP Experience

When I lived in Greece, I essentially lived at a restaurant. I saw the owner and his staff every day — they became my family, and they worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen: seven days a week, 16+ hour days. The owner himself was always loading the wood oven, manning the grill, greeting customers, taking orders, prepping salads — anything that needed to be done, he did. But it wasn’t for the money (this IS Greece we’re talking about) — what motivated him was making other people happy, and this was how he and his staff ran the restaurant, in service to others.

That’s the same impression I got from Philippe Maatouk, owner of Layali in downtown Providence. If the name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you remember Kartabar restaurant, which sadly closed its doors after 18 years on College Hill, ending Maatouk’s 28-year stint on Thayer Street. It was clear from the heaviness in his voice he was sad to say goodbye to that period of time, but with Layali a new era begins, and the things that made Kartabar  memorable are now found now at the corner of Weybosset Street and Custom House Road.

It was there, on that corner, that I stood in early April admiring the murals across the street, when a door behind me burst open and the question I most love was posed: “Are you looking for a place to eat? Come in!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to eat at that time, but that’s how I met Maatouk — who, by the way, is the kind of person who’d insist I call him Philippe — and how I came to know about Layali, which had just opened its doors a week before. I went inside to peek at the menu and saw hummus and grilled pizza, and I was sold. I was not, however, prepared for what happened a few months later when I finally arrived for dinner with fellow Motif contributor, Gabby Halliday.

First of all, the interior. Immediately upon entering, you descend steps until you’re eye level with the street, and with wall-length windows, this is an exceptional place for people watching. It’s a small space — a bar with a line of seats, a few high top tables, some tall cushioned booths — but it’s welcoming. There are two strategically placed TVs so that anyone with a keen interest in sports will be happy, but the atmosphere is lounge-like and intimate. Outside, there are a handful of vibrant red tables that allow customers to properly enjoy summer months with an evening breeze and a nice sangria.

IMG_3373Speaking of sangria, let’s talk about this cocktail list. I’ve never felt so sad about dining with a minor (no offense, Gabby) because every drink on the menu sounded exceptional and she couldn’t help me in the slightest. I had two that night myself, starting with the Rosemary Bourbon Old Fashioned. Our waitress torched a pile of rosemary at the table — literally, she set it on fire — catching the smoke in an overturned glass, into which she added the Bulleit Bourbon, bitters and rosemary honey. It was fascinating to watch, and even better to drink.

Meanwhile, Philippe chose all of our food for us. “Do you trust me?” he asked.

“I trust you,” I said, which was unexpected after he opened our conversation by telling me he had 16 children from his various exploits around the world.

“Oh, wow. Um … what is their age range?” I asked.

“The oldest is 24,” he said with a straight face, and as I struggled to think of another question, he burst into laughter. “I’m kidding! I have two kids,” he said. “One in London and one here.”

IMG_3363On our menu that night: warm spicy marinated olives, Barcelona shrimp (one of the most popular dishes from Kartabar), gorgonzola stuffed bacon wrapped dates, hummus bi tahini, artisan tabbouleh, and a side of Layali style french fries. We devoured it all.

The shrimp, which came out first, was Gabby’s favorite. “Is there wine in this sauce?” she asked, her JWU education shining forth.

Philippe nodded, impressed. “Yes, a sherry wine sauce!”

My less sensitive palate knew only that the chorizo was superb, and it made this one of the best shrimp dishes I’ve ever had.

I then took to shoveling hummus into my mouth with light, crispy pita chips. Gabby, not typically a fan of hummus, was pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a 28-year perfected recipe,” Philippe said before disappearing into the kitchen to prepare the tabbouleh for us.

IMG_3388When it arrived, looking like a bowl full of Christmas — shades of bright green and red — Gabby and I couldn’t wait to dig in. It was served with romaine lettuce rather than endive, the way it is traditionally eaten in Philippe’s home country of Lebanon. And it truly was an artisan dish — fine bulgur, lemon, bursting with parsley: a refreshing dish for summer weather.

“I could eat this all day, every day,” Philippe said, and Gabby and I agreed, except we secretly feared getting parsley stuck in our teeth.

“Is this why you have giant mirrors on the walls?” I asked jokingly, but also serious, wanting to check my reflection (miraculously, none of us ended up with parsley-ravaged mouths, so this is still a date-friendly dish!)

IMG_3387For dessert, we ordered a blueberry pizza — fresh blueberries on a thin crust with mascarpone cheese: unexpectedly delicious. I naturally rounded out the experience with an espresso martini that arrived in flames. The cocktails here do not disappoint! I immediately sent a photo to my friend Jeremy, the connoisseur of espresso martinis. He said it looked like the holy grail of espresso martinis and he will visit ASAP.

But beyond the delicious food and majestic cocktails is what really sets Layali apart: the dedication and investment of its owner. Philippe stood up to greet every person who walked through the door, hugging them or shaking their hands, sitting down with a table, and at one point even running outside to pull in friends from the street. A former employee of Kartabar was among them, and she shared with me what she loved about working there. “Philippe always made sure we treated every guest like they were VIP. That’s what he does. Every person who walks through the door is special and should be treated that way.”

I suddenly felt like I was back on the patio of the restaurant in Greece, a striking similarity between that owner and Philippe. Although someone can be taught hospitality, there are few people from whom it flows so naturally, and that’s what makes Layali unique. There’s always a VIP table waiting, just for you.

Layali, 36 Weybosset St, PVD

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