Monday, February 4, 2008

A Heaping Helping of Hot Coal (Layali Beirut, 25-60 Steinway Street)

No part of the neighborhood seems more foreign to us than the stretch of Steinway Street below Astoria Boulevard, where the smell of shisha fills the air, all the bodegas sell hookah pipes, and awnings implore you to read the Holy Koran. Frankly, we were intimidated by the plethora of hookah cafes as we wandered around on a weekend night trying to choose a place. It seemed hard to believe that people could eat amid all that smoke, so thick that it hung visibly in the air and cast a gray pallor over everything we could see through the windows. Perusing the menus outside many of the cafes -- in many cases translated poorly out of Arabic -- did little to put us at ease. Roast pigeon? And we weren't entirely sure women were welcome in these places. They seemed very much the domain of Egyptian men, young and old, playing backgammon with mute ferocity.

We chose Layali Beirut, in part because it was lit with green and red neon, and because, inexplicably, it had a weirdly welcoming pirate statue posted by the entrance.

Once inside, the scent of tobacco was nearly overpowering. The place was full, and just about everyone was smoking hookahs. We felt conspicuous, but it was comforting to see that female customers were present; one table even consisted entirely of women, though they were not smoking. Considering our purpose, though, it was not reassuring that few seemed to be eating. The décor was eclectic to say the least, some kind of testimony to Lebanon's reputation as a cultural crossroads. There were Christian-themed paintings, bas reliefs, Islamic carved pattern work in the moldings and doorways, a vast array of bellows hanging from the walls, and Lebanese music videos flickering through the haze from flat-screen TVs. And the sea of plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling bordered on insanity.

A table had just been vacated as we entered, so we had somewhere to sit, but it took the waitress some heavy-duty work with Windex to get it clean. The amount of mess left by the previous customers seemed astonishing until we considered that they may have been there for several hours, what with the backgammon and all. Like most of the hookah cafes, there's no booze at Layali Beirut; most customers drank tea, Turkish coffee, or fruit juice -- one of us ordered something billed on the menu as "Mango4" (we couldn't decide if this was a typo). We decided to pass on the overpriced entrées and stick to the more reasonable appetizers.

The kibbeh, miniature fried footballs of minced lamb and bulgur, were tasty. We wish the waitress had given us a hint and suggested we order a side of tahini to go along with it, as is traditional and necessary -- they screamed out for something to moisten the palate, though the meat was tender enough. We also ordered what was essentially Lebanese home fries, cubed potatoes seasoned with coriander and heaps of cilantro.

Naturally, we ordered shisha as well. Not to wax too orientalist, but smoking from a hookah always inevitably feels somewhat exotic, and in this particular setting, it was especially so. We were most taken with the employee who walked through the crowded café carrying hot coals to restoke the hookahs. With his tin basket and iron tongs, he seemed quaintly medieval, an indentured manservant to some pasha in the wings. And we can hardly imagine what sort of fire pit the coals were being extracted from. But when the coals were refreshed, one could certainly draw smoke much more copiously, and the curious ritual did much to add to the occult feel of what we were doing. It made tobacco seem exciting all over again.

We never quite felt at ease in Layali Beirut, but that may have been because we had nothing by which to gauge our expectations. But it seems that if you could acclimate yourself to the smoke and could overcome the oddity of the environment -- two big ifs -- you could settle in and enjoy yourself at the café for an unbounded stretch of time. It's hard to condemn a culture in which men devote their evenings to smoking leisurely and gathering to play venerable board games, especially when we contrasted it with the dismal milieu at McCaffrey & Burke, which we visited later. There, an inebriated man tried to hug us while slobbering about the Super Bowl, and a group of drunken twenty-somethings stumble-danced with one another to the classic rock on the jukebox while one of them tried to show off her massage skills, bracing herself for leverage and getting her elbows involved. The sad, sunken faces at the bar are best left undescribed. It was depressing to realize that while we felt so alienated at Layali Beirut, these loutish, besotted slobs were, in fact, our people.

Price: $7 for hookah; food runs the gamut -- what we ordered seemed pricey for what it was.
Will we go again? No, but through no fault of Leyali Beirut's. We just need to work on our backgammon game.

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