LATE-NIGHT dining often means less-than-healthy choices. Fortunately, newcomer Leila Cafe brings healthy Mediterranean cuisine to daytime as well as wee-hour noshing.
Partners Smiley Al Chebab and Mohammad Kammon offer Middle Eastern fare with a Lebanese emphasis in a small Center City cafe appropriately named "pure night."
My first visit was early fall and the sidewalk was overflowing with al fresco dining and bustling, friendly table service. A recent renovation made the interior much more appealing for the colder months.
While Leila is a small room, it is inviting. The tea, which has a touch of cinnamon, is served in my favorite vessel for hot tea - a tall glass mug that you can wrap your hands around. The coffee is spiced and served much like Turkish coffee.
Leila's Maza ($13.99) is a bargain and a good way to sample your way through most of the menu. The combination includes about six dishes - a meal for two or appetizers for four.
Tabouleh salad is always a good measure of a Middle Eastern restaurant. A proper tabouleh will have a ratio of about three times as much parsley and mint than bulgar wheat.
In addition to tomatoes and onions, it also needs a strong hit of lemon with the olive oil for good balance. Leila's hits the mark on each here.
Another good salad was the fattoush, a mix of toasted pieces of pita tossed with chopped vegetables. It reminded me of Italian bread salad with pita pieces replacing the dry bread.
The stuffed grape leaves on the maza were compactly rolled, yielding a great texture for the rice. The leaves offered enough briny taste to add some zip and contrast.
My tasting panel was at odds over the baba ghanoush.
There was one really thumbs-up, one in the middle, and I was less than enthusiastic as it seemed overly salted and the flavor of the eggplant was nonexistent.
The meat platters are $9.79 and are served with a side of tabouleh and hummus, but you can substitute a Greek or garden salad.
Chebab blends his own spices for the dishes and makes everything fresh.
Rather than use a mix for the falafel, he makes a combination of his own secret spice blend and chick peas. He also makes his sauces from scratch.
A big hit with all the tasters was the Shawarma Platter. It was piled high with perfectly shaved pieces of beef on a bed of creamy basmati rice.
Another good dish was the Beef Kaffta, or what some refer to as the Arabic hamburger. The meat is usually seasoned with cumin and coriander – Chebab creates his own blend.
Coming in a close second was the Beef Kibbie Platter, which featured tasty patties of a beef and grain blend.
The platters are a lot of food, but don't overlook the sandwiches. We enjoyed the Chicken Sandwich ($6.59) which was like a giant pita wrap. It had a great texture contrast - a pickle and lettuce added crunch while the creamy tahini and hummus sauces blended with the seasoned chicken.
We all loved the pickles and hot peppers that come on the platters and sandwiches. They add a nice little extra. The pickles have a slightly different taste profile than a traditional deli pickle, and the peppers offer the perfect amount of heat.
The only real disappointment of the meal was dessert. There are two kinds of Baklava, both of which our server said were made elsewhere. The Walnut ($1.25) was dry and flavorless, as was the Chocolate Almond ($1.79), but at least it had chocolate.
For cultural reasons, Leila Café has a no alcohol policy so don't even think BYOB.
Chebab says he wants to offer a different environment and show off their beverages.
The fruit Smoothies ($2.99 regular; $3.79 large) are divinely inspired. All of them have a bit of banana for the base and you can choose a combination of berries and fruit juice.
There's also a plain milk or chocolate option, which would make a fine dessert choice given the current options.
You can also linger over a hookah and purchase one of their specially blended tobacco and aromatics. It's communal but sanitary. The pipes are cleaned regularly and there are disposable plastic tips for inhaling.
Join Lari Robling and Chef Jim Coleman for a live webchat to get ready for Thanksgiving, on Nov. 19 at noon, by logging onto www.whyy.org/chef.