Restaurant Review: Laylak – Luxurious or lacklustre Lebanese cuisine?

Address25 Toronto Street
Dinner for two with drinks$225

Bonjour b*tches!

Laylak recently opened its doors in the heart of the Financial District, inviting diners to explore a contemporary take on Lebanese cuisine. Laylak, meaning to “lilac” in Arabic, promises diners authentic Middle Eastern flavours while encapsulating culture of Lebanon in a harmonious blend of tradition and modernity. This is precisely what co-owners Youssef Harb and Hashem Almasri envisioned for their first foray into the Toronto restaurant scene. (Side note: In October 2023, they’ll be opening a second location of Laylak in Oakville.)

As I step inside the Renaissance-Revival building where Laylak is located, I’m immediately welcomed by the intoxicating aroma of exotic spices and the subtle undertones of the grill. In the entry, butterfly motifs dance on the walls and two hostesses decked out in lilac dresses stand behind a table. After providing my name, one of the hostesses says: “You know your table is only held for a one-and-a-half-hour limit, right?” For a self-described upscale venue, I’m immediately thrown off.

She leads us to our table as her lilac dress bounces. The main dining room is swoon-worthy. It’s as opulent as the building’s exterior with ivory ultra-suede banquets, amethyst accents and pops of glimmering gold. There’s an art installation/light fixture suspended from the ceiling that’s breathtaking. Dim lighting shines on shelves adorned with artifacts, each telling a story of its own. However, the ambiance mainly appeals to a modern Toronto diner. My guest and I settle into our seats, but our elbows practically rub the patrons beside us. To say it’s overcrowded is an understatement. I’m hopeful that we will embark on a culinary adventure that’s not just about savouring the exotic flavours, but also embracing Lebanese hospitality.

As for chef Hazem Al Hamwi’s menu, it’s extensive and, at first glance, enticing. The classics are all there: tabbouleh, hummus and labneh—all served alongside fluffy pita bread that’s still warm to the touch. The meaty treasures of kibbeh and kefta are there, too, artfully plated to match the restaurant’s flair.

The beverage menu is vast, with a nod to Lebanese roots. The sommelier includes several Lebanese wines and crowd-pleasers from the Old World. It’s hard not to want the Instagram-worthy “Laylak” ($19) cocktail, a sweet and sour gin-based cocktail that’s laced with lavender and finished with butterfly pea powder, giving it a purple hue. It’s well-balanced and enjoyable. The classic Manhattan isn’t as show stopping ($19), but there are zero regrets with either cocktail.

A highlight of the hot appetizers is the Halloumi ($27), paired with cucumber, cured tomatoes and basil—all of which complement the cheese’s tanginess. Although the steep price point doesn’t reflect the portion, it hits the spot. Unfortunately, the other dishes miss the mark.

The cauliflower tajin ($35) is one example. As I bite into the roasted florets, they cry out for a crisper exterior to contrast against their soft interior. The anticipated crescendo of flavours—the fiery zing of serrano pepper and the hit of acid from the tarator sauce—seem to merely flutter, rather than soar. A more judicious hand with the seasoning and a bravado in embodying the soulful, aromatic spices of Lebanese cuisine may have elevated the tajin from its melancholic mediocrity to a spirited celebration of flavours.

A Lebanese restaurant should have perfected it’s kefta, mais oui? I order the kefta kebab ($27) thinking it will provide some redemption. The meat is tender and well-marinated, offering that charred goodness, which is the hallmark of any good grill. But, even here, there’s room for more—a burst of spices, perhaps, or a smokier undertone.

Much like our “warm” greeting, the service is a game of chance. While the server welcomes us with a warmth reminiscent of Lebanese hospitality, as the evening progresses, our server seems to oscillate between being attentive and distant.

My experience at Laylak conveyed a gentle reminder that the magnificence of culinary creation lies in the delicate balance between respect for tradition and the audacity to innovate. The ambiance of Laylak is stunning, that’s for certain, but while my journey offered fleeting glimpses of possibility, it ultimately sauntered, rather than soared, through the vibrant tapestry of Lebanese gastronomy.

Mme M. xoxo

2.5/5 étoiles

La rubrique de Madame Marie

1 étoile – Run. Before you get the runs.
 étoiles – Mediocre, but nothing you couldn’t make at home.
 étoiles – C’est bon, with some standout qualities.
 étoiles – Many memorable qualities and excellent execution. Compliments to the chef.
 étoiles – Formidable! Michelin Star quality. Book a reservation immediately.