Leyalina, Carlton

Where: Leyalina, 191 Lygon Street Carlton

What: A trusty non-Italian dining option on Lygon Street (particularly on a Monday when everything is shut)

Who: Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Spud Bar-oness, Afternoon Delight, The Occasional Feature Teacher

It’s a perennially hard task finding a quick place to eat at before a cheap Monday night movie at Nova. Tiamo has very set dining times that often don’t work with screening times. I’m sick of Grill’d. I haven’t visited Papa Gino’s since acquiring a disposable income. Leonardo’s and Kaprica are solid options, but they almost require too much money to be dropped on a Monday night in this economy. Enter Leyalina, a quaint Egyptian restaurant near the corner of Grattan and Lygon. A seven-minute walk to Nova, tick. Shareable plates that culminate in an economical dinner for all, tick. Cosy surroundings and excellent service, tick.

As soon as we sat down, who I’m guessing was Nadar Tawfek, the owner of Leyalina, came over to our table to run us through the menu (he was the cutest!!). He mentioned that everything demarcated by a box on the menu were the most popular dishes – they ranged from the Leyalina appetiser tray (a combination of three dips served with pita bread) to the koshari (more on this later) to a $74 charcoal grill for two. In true virgo style, I commandeered the ordering – something The Occasional Feature Teacher, who is fatigued from making decisions all day every day at her school, was greatly thankful for. She often can’t join us due to her busy schedule, hence her nickname. We were working with a couple of dietary requirements on our table – Mr WFYB’s limited palate, Spud Bar-oness’ inability to eat certain things – so I ordered a chicken dish and hot chips to sate Mr WFYB and Spud Bar-oness ordered her own thing.

Music to the ears of ethical eaters and the gluten intolerant out there is that every dish on Leyalina’s menu is clearly labelled as either V (vegetarian), VG (vegan) and GF (gluten-free). As with many traditional iterations of cuisines around the world, a lot of Egyptian food is vegetarian – owing to the historical expense of meat as well as Egyptians’ adherence to Coptic Christianity, which requires a strict vegan diet for much of the year.

First to arrive among our ordered dishes was the grilled halloumi, which Afternoon Delight, The Occasional Feature Teacher and I shared among ourselves due to Mr WFYB’s dislike of cheese and Spud Bar-oness’s inability to eat dairy. These pleasantly squeaky strips of lightly charred halloumi were a light entrée, perfect as a little taster of what was to come without filling us up in any substantial way.

The next entrée of arnabeet ($15) – seasoned cauliflower fried and served with tahini – was a highlight. I was expecting something similar to the lightly dusted fried cauliflower served at Tibas (which I adore – best and most underrated dish at Tibas imo) but these were something different entirely. Generously spiced cauliflower florets were enveloped completely in a fluffy, immaculately fried batter – all of which were a treat dipped in the tahini.

Travel writer Jessica Esa’s piece on Greatist on learning to enjoy cauliflower only when she tasted her Egyptian’s dad preparation of it goes some way to explaining the flavour that underpins these tiny morsels of goodness:

“My dad’s Egyptian spiced and fried cauliflower takes a cruciferous vegetable that’s bland, even in colour, and adds complex layers of flavour and fragrance through a trio of aromatic spices that dance on your tongue: cumin, coriander, and turmeric. The spices add a lively scent and a deep colour, one that attracted me to the dish long before I took my first bite.”

Arnabeet mekleh – which translates to mean fried cauliflower – is a common Lebanese snack. It’s typically served as a side, as part of a mezze (a selection of small dishes served as appetisers in the Levant, Turkey, the Balkans, Iraq and Iran, and many other places), or alongside golden, crunchy French fries on meatless days (so turns out our decision to order fries was culturally appropriate). What differentiates the Egyptian arnabeet mekleh from the Lebanese one is the presence of the batter.

The chicken shish tawouk ($32) – three skewers of marinated and grilled chicken fillets served with rice or chips (we chose rice) – was the first of our mains to arrive. Although I ordered this primarily because I knew Mr WFYB would enjoy it – he prays at the altar of chicken anything, even more so if it’s served on a skewer – it turned out to be a collective highlight. The skewered chicken pieces were incredibly well-flavoured and moist within, while the rice was studded with minced lamb and added an additional savoury component to the meal. The accompanying sauces of toum (garlic sauce) and tahini completed the trinity of goodness.   

With ‘shish’ translating to mean skewers and ‘tawouk’ meaning chicken in Turkish, shish tawouk originated in the Ottoman empire, becoming popular in many parts of the Middle East – Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Iraq – during the Ottoman’s rule from 1516 through to 1918. In countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, shish tawouk is grilled outdoors, even in the colder months. The Lebanese and Syrian versions of shish tawouk are typically served with toum, hummus and tabbouleh while the sandwich versions come in a flatbread accompanied by lettuce, tomatoes and pickled turnips.

Reading further about shish tawouk and discovering that it’s marinated in yoghurt – on top of spices like paprika, cinnamon, oregano; tomato paste which gives it a gentle red hue; lemon juice; garlic and ginger – explains why it’s so moist and tender (love the power of a yoghurt marinade).

One of my favourite things are double-carb hits (souvlakis with chips! potato pizzas! masala dosa!), so I couldn’t go past Leyalina’s koshari ($19), one of the boxed menu items. While many of Leyalina’s menu items straddle different influences, koshari is firmly an Egyptian dish – its national dish in fact. This was such an interesting addition to our meal quite unlike anything I’d had before. Lentils had been mixed in with rice and macaroni, topped with chickpeas, frizzled onions and a tomato garlic sauce. I’m all about contrasts in my food, and the juxtaposition of textures and flavours was up the wazoo in this dish – the al dente macaroni was interspersed with the discernible grains of short-grain rice, the gentle firmness of the chickpeas and spiced lentils, and the crunch of the savoury fried onions. The garlic tomato sauce – which is typically made with vinegar and Middle Eastern spice mix baharat – had a tartness which lifted the entire dish. Accompanying the entire dish was a small saucer of crushed red pepper flakes for anyone (me) who wanted to up the heat ante of the dish. I underestimated Mr WFYB, who enjoyed this dish (what’s not to like between rice, pasta and sauces).

Regarded as the cousin to the Middle Eastern rice lentil dish mujadara, koshari (also known as kushari or koshary) is the definition of Egyptian comfort food and a popular street food commonly cooked in large pots. It’s also completely vegan. As written by restaurateur Shahrokh Parvi in The Guardian:

“It has been around since at least the middle of the 19th-century, probably evolving from a mix of Indian and Italian influences. Donkey-pulled food carts used to hawk it around poorer areas, but as its popularity grew, hole-in-the-wall shops and then restaurants sprang up across the city, many of them selling nothing but kushari. It’s cheap, but packed full of protein and so many carbs it is widely favoured by the city’s marathon runners.”

Koshari’s multifaceted ingredients may have very been inspired by the Indian rice and lentil dish khichdi, either brought to Egypt by British colonisers in the late 1800s or introduced to Egypt by virtue of sustained contact with South Asia. The presence of macaroni in this dish suggests an Italian influence, perhaps owing to Italian immigrants arriving in Egypt in the 19th century.

For some vegetation, I ordered us a fattoush, with my favourite part being the toasted scraps of pita soaked in a zesty vinaigrette. Known as “the ubiquitous chopped salad of the Middle East”, fattoush is said to have originated in northern Lebanon and features different ingredients according to where you are and what you have – so as long as you have sumac. Apart from toasted pita, Leyalina’s bright, zingy fattoush had lettuce, carrot and cucumber – a refreshing reprieve to the heavier dishes we’d ordered.

To top it all off and for Mr WFYB’s benefit, we ordered hot chips ($9). These were the best chips I’d tasted in a while – golden, crunchy and sprinkled with a generous proportion of chicken salt. (As an aside, I loved reading this article written by Turkish-American, Dallas-based food writer Brian Reinhart on why Middle Eastern restaurants have the best fries.)

I didn’t feel too bloated after finishing my meal, but my stomach did continually grumble while I was watching Aftersun (so devastating, go watch it immediately). Could it have been the wheat or the onions or the sauces?

I was dining in a group where appetites run small, so Mr WFYB and I now have plenty of the koshari, chicken tawouk rice and fattoush to feast on in the days to come. We didn’t get close to trying the multitude of riches on Leyalina’s menu – there was an entire tagine section that went untouched by us (including ones with Mediterranean and Italian influences, like the moussaka tagine and the bechamel tagine with baked penne) as well as famed Egyptian dishes like molokheya (a full-bodied soup of chopped jute leaves and garlic) and hawawshy (minced meat baked in pita bread). As I say at the end of nearly every review I write, I’ll be back!

Leyalina is open Sunday to Thursday from 5pm to 11.30pm and Friday to Saturday from 5pm to 1.30am.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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