Restaurant Reviews

Laili Brings Afghan and Turkish Home Cooking to Dallas Farmers Market

The revitalized Dallas Farmers Market is humming with activity, and a number of spring restaurant openings have caught the city’s attention. Nammi, the popular banh mi food truck, opened a physical space; local favorites like Rex’s Seafood, Taquería La Ventana and Scardello have arrived, too.

But one new startup has the potential to steal the show from even those beloved institutions. The newcomer: Laili, a “Silk Road” fusion counter. Its chef-owners are two women from Afghanistan and Turkey, Afifa Nayeb and Nevin Kaya. The menu happily jumps between the two countries’ native cuisines, a roster of home-cooking dishes presented with integrity. Even surrounded by the Farmers Market’s array of stylish macarons and ice cream sandwiches, the desserts at Laili stand out as some of the neighborhood’s best.

For the owners, Laili is a sort of food manifesto and a political statement. During one visit, Nayeb spoke freely about her passion for woman-owned businesses, still a controversial issue in her native Afghanistan. Nayeb, who is involved with the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, teaches her daughter and nieces, who also work at Laili, “to stand on your own feet,” she says. A Kabul native, she headed west in the face of invading Soviet armies in the 1980s, settling in America and building a career in business.

Kaya is the quieter of the two, her English not as advanced. In conversation, she modestly deflects compliments and credits her colleagues, but her work speaks loudly and with pride. Kaya is the pastry chef, and some of her feats are simply unbelievable. She makes her own phyllo dough from scratch. If you’ve ever even seen baklava, you’ll appreciate the difficulty of this; its dough must be rolled until it is as thin as a sheet of paper.

To get acquainted with this menu, start with the “beef roulade” appetizer ($5), a turnover which wraps ground beef and spices in that homemade phyllo. The dough’s freshness and crispness are one-of-a-kind, and the crackle of pastry between your teeth is nearly as satisfying as the taste. The turnover is topped with both sesame and nigella seeds.

Laili’s limited menu offers a handful of main-course treats. Bolani/gözleme ($10) is a stuffed flatbread, a bit like a crepe; the interpretation here combines spinach, feta and a big kick of spicy pepper flakes. “Bolani” is the Afghan name, “gözleme” the Turkish. At Laili, they use both to indicate the same dish.
Other standouts include the kebab wrap sandwiches ($10-14), with fresh bread and a side salad. In a beef wrap ($13), rib-eye meat is tastefully seasoned with a peppery rub, grilled and served with spinach. On the side is a spicy, supremely addicting cilantro cream sauce, which you can grab on its own in a to-go tub ($6).

Mantoo, tortellini-like dumplings ($12), are topped with yogurt sauce and a red sauce made with tomato paste, butter and a dash of red pepper. Sometimes Kaya makes these dumplings from scratch, too, although she confessed that on the day we tried them, she’d cheated on the dough. There’s no cheating on the well-spiced ground beef filling, which is the dish’s highlight. The yogurt sauce would be better, though, if it had a stronger hint of garlic.
Laili also offers a series of veggie dips ($6), which you can consume at the Farmer’s Market with some fresh-baked bread or take home in a tub. A dip of roasted eggplant and bell peppers is a winner, with teasing heat; the roasted eggplant is also used on a bruschetta appetizer with the restaurant’s fresh flatbread. The basil-garlic-cream-cheese dip might be even more addicting. There are a number of hummus options, too, including one spiked with pureed pine nuts.

And, of course, you must finish the meal with baklava ($1.75). This baklava, perpetually fresh, is sweet but not excessive, or even rich. Frankly, all of Kaya’s desserts are admirable — they change regularly, as the staff experiments with new recipes, so check the case or exploit the restaurant’s generous free sample policy. The eatery recently featured a finger-licking Turkish tart with a layer of thinly-sliced apples. Laili is dabbling in Western pastries, too, with a lineup of classic French desserts, luxuriously soft cookies and a moist vanilla-dark chocolate “mosaic cake” studded with pistachios.

With the Farmers Market such a rejuvenated hub of activity, it’s easy to focus on perennial dining favorites or stalls serving the trendy new buzzword foods. Judging from where the crowds migrate, it’s also easy to forget that, over in the original shed, there are still real farmers trying to sell produce. But the women at Laili are cooking up a successful combination of Middle Eastern comfort food and global pastry favorites.

A larger Plano location is expected to open within a few weeks, and co-owners Kaya and Nayeb will take turns in charge of each kitchen. The new location should offer a few comfortable places to sit; the Farmers Market corner has three chairs along a bar overlooking the kitchen, and just one small table. With luck, these humble market stall beginnings will be the foundation of a kebab-and-pastry empire.
Laili, 920 S. Harwood St. Suite 102, 214-484-3735, Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday