When people ask about my favorite local restaurants, the short list always includes those downtown. Laili Restaurant. Cohesive cuisine and this atmospheric inner courtyard are among the compelling reasons for making this one of my top dining destinations. And the past week has only strengthened my affection for this house of Mediterranean cuisine with Middle Eastern accents.
We started with generous glasses of tempranillo ($9), joined by a fragrant circle of warm naan flatbread. The garlic-herb infused olive oil that accompanies the bread makes for an irresistible dip. After years of browsing Laili’s tantalizing menu of kebabs, pastas and well-spiced entrees, we’ve settled on our favourites. Dividing the always enticing beet salad ($11), we worked our way through a filling of baby arugula to a layer of beets marinated in a balsamic Dijon dressing sprinkled with goat cheese. This dish is always satisfying, the earthy sweetness of the beets complicated by the flavor of the feta.
Our entrees these days invariably lean towards a variety of kebabs. My mate Jack debated between chicken and lamb before choosing the Chicken Kabob ($22). It’s easily among the best chicken dishes in town. Tender, perfectly grilled chicken breast wedges arrived on a long ceramic rectangle, nestled against a technicolor array of mixed vegetables and plentiful saffron rice. On one side of the platter was the piping hot sautéed tomatoes, broccoli and zucchini (zucchini with real flavor), and on the other side was a trio of chutneys that alone are worth a visit to Laili – the red tomato-based sauce, another mound of garlicky sour cream and a green cilantro chutney that packs some heat.
My filet mignon brochette entrée dish parfait (made exactly between rare and medium rare, as requested) came with spicy saffron rice infused with raisins, and more vegetables and chutneys ($32). Dinner in the Laili courtyard, surrounded by high walls covered in emerald vines and flowering plants, was the perfect dinner back after a long flight from Paris.
Laili Restaurant, 101B Cooper St., Santa Cruz. Tuesday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. lailirestaurant.com.
On the sidelines
If you consider yourself an oeno-adventurer, then make tracks for So if tomorrow night, Thursday June 23, and join the local wine ace Megan Bell, which will pour under it some of its unexpected grape varieties Margins label. The Margins style involves regions, vineyards, and especially varietals that can be considered “underrepresented” – things you don’t encounter on the average restaurant’s wine list. Bell will present a tasting selection of six different wines on the Patio du Soif from 5 to 7 p.m.; $30/$15 for Soif Wine Club members, buy your tickets online or at the wine boutique. Also remember to check out the next pop-up gastronomic events in Soif, with local guest chefs selected by a sommelier Dede Eckhardt and wine director Alexis Carr. July 8 Aaron Robertson d’Akira will concoct Japanese items, and on July 23 Complete steam dumpling will dazzle your taste buds. The whole pop-up phenomenon is such a clever way to introduce the public to the talent of innovative chefs. Talent can be shared and tasted in a bypass alliance that circumvents the daunting cost of opening a full physical store. Thirst Wine Bar & Merchants, 105 Walnut Ave, Santa Cruz. Check thirstwine.com for future pop-up events.
On the horizon for summer restaurants, the first is the opening this week of the new Rio del Mar Venus Spirits by the beachfollowed in a few weeks by the Westside’s Namaste Indian bistro. And I’m crossing my fingers that the new Cafe Iveta on Front Street will soon be opening just a few doors down from Grand Bassin tasting room. Have a great day after the solstice!