.Laili Restaurant’s Popularity Thrives on its Fusion of Mediterranean Flavors

Plus, Soif Wine Bar & Merchants pop-ups and Venus Spirits Beachside opens in Rio Del Mar

When people ask about my favorite local restaurants, the short list always includes downtown’s Laili Restaurant. A consistent kitchen and that atmospheric inner courtyard are among the compelling reasons to make it one of my top dining destinations. And last week simply reinforced my affection for this house of Mediterranean dining with a Middle Eastern inflection.

We started with generous glasses of tempranillo ($9), joined by a fragrant circle of warm naan flatbread. The garlic and herb-infused olive oil that accompanies the bread makes an irresistible dip. After years of roaming Laili’s mouth-watering menu of kabobs, pastas and well-spiced appetizers, we’ve settled on our favorites. Splitting the always-seductive beet salad ($11), we worked our way through a thicket of baby arugula down into a layer of marinated beets in dijon balsamic vinaigrette strewn with goat cheese. This dish is always satisfying, the earthy sweetness of the beets complexified by the tang of feta.

These days, our entrees invariably lean toward some variety of kabob. My companion Jack debated between chicken and lamb before deciding on the Chicken Kabob ($22). It’s easily among the top chicken dishes in town. Tender wedges of chicken breast, perfectly grilled, arrived on a long ceramic rectangle, nestled against a technicolor array of mixed vegetables and abundant saffron rice. On one side of the platter were the piping-hot sauteed tomatoes, broccoli and zucchini (zucchini with actual flavor), and on the other side were a trio of chutneys that are worth a visit to Laili all by themselves—the tomato-based red sauce, another mound of garlicky sour cream and a cilantro green chutney that packs some heat.

My entree platter of perfect filet mignon kabob (done exactly between rare and medium rare, as requested) came with spiced saffron rice infused with raisins, and more of the veggies and chutneys ($32). Dinner in the Laili courtyard, enclosed by high walls covered in emerald vines and flowering plants, made the perfect homecoming dinner after a long flight from Paris.

Laili Restaurant, 101B Cooper St., Santa Cruz. Tuesday-Saturday, 4-8pm. lailirestaurant.com.

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On the Margins

If you consider yourself an oeno-adventurer, then make tracks for Soif tomorrow night—Thursday, June 23rd—and join ace local winemaker Megan Bell, who’ll be pouring some of her unexpected varietals under her Margins label. The Margins style involves regions, vineyards and especially varietals one can think of as “under-represented”—stuff you don’t encounter on the average restaurant wine list. Bell will introduce a tasting selection of six different wines on the Soif patio from 5-7pm; $30/$15 for Soif wine club members, purchase tickets online or at the wine shop. Also, consider checking out the upcoming pop-up food events at Soif, with local guest chefs selected by sommelier Dede Eckhardt and wine director Alexis Carr. On July 8 Aaron Robertson of Akira will whip up Japanese items, and on July 23 Full Steam Dumpling will dazzle your tastebuds. The whole pop-up phenomenon is such a smart way of bringing the talent of innovative chefs to the public. Talent can be shared and tasted in a work-around alliance that bypasses the daunting cost of opening a full-on brick-and-mortar store. Soif Wine Bar & Merchants, 105 Walnut Ave, Santa Cruz. Check soifwine.com for future pop-up events.

Looking Forward

On our summer dining horizon, first up is this week’s opening of the new Rio del Mar Venus Spirits Beachside, followed in a few weeks by the Westside’s Namaste Indian Bistro. And fingers crossed that the new Cafe Iveta on Front Street will be opening soon a few doors down from Big Basin Tasting Room. Happy day after Solstice!

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