“Come with me to the Casbah….” Like most people, I attributed that line to some classic film of the ’40s, when actually, Scene film critic Jim Ridley informs, it’s spoken by Pepe le Pew in a Looney Tunes parody of the Charles Boyer-Hedy Lamarr vehicle Algiers.
No matter. In my overly active imagination, those words came from a dashing, olive-skinned Arabic prince in flowing robes astride a sleek white stallion, and the Casbah was a sand-colored tent set like an oasis amid sweeping dunes of the Sahara desert, the canvas interior furnished with plump pillows covered in satin and velvet. My fantasy Casbah was in Morocco, an ancient, history-drenched country with villages lyrically named Marrakesh, Tangier, Volubilis and Casablanca.
In reality, a Casbah was a traditional defensive fortress in precolonial North African towns, with high walls and small or no windows; it was the seat of the local ruler or feudal master, and the hiding place of the local population during attacks. But Morocco, a country once dotted with many such structures, is indeed as alluring and exotic as its reputation. Located on the northwestern tip of Africa, bordered by both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, cleaved by the towering Atlas Mountains and a sweep of the Sahara, it is, according to those who’ve been there, an utterly unique and nearly life-altering experience.
Getting there from Nashville is relatively simple: fly from BNA to JFK in New York, and from there, straight across the Atlantic on Air Morocco to Casablanca. But if an extended visit isn’t a possibility, you can experience the alluring illusion of a Morrocan voyage at 909 20th Ave. S., where Layl’a Rul has finally exorcised the ghost of the now closed restaurant Chu.
When investors contracted Chris Hyndman to guide their venture in the building that once housed Chu, the savvy young owner/creator of Virago immediately did two things: he swept the interior clean of all possible vestiges of the Asian-themed restaurant to provide a blank canvas for his vision of a contemporary Moroccan hideaway, and he steered the fiercely creative, boldly interpretive chef Scott Alderson (6º, Saffire) into the kitchen.
An avid student of restaurants, clubs and cosmopolitan nightlife, Hyndman wanted to design and develop a “boutique restaurant” within an “ultra lounge.” Look no further than the failed 6º and Chu—neither of which celebrated its first birthday—for proof that the two concepts do not necessarily exist together harmoniously. But here, they are two separate but mutually supportive entities: Layl’a Rul the Boutique Restaurant serves from an à la carte or five-course prix fixe menu from 6 until 10 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday nights, and until 11 on Friday and Saturday. Then, after 11, the two levels segue seamlessly into a youth/fashion/style-driven Ultra Lounge fueled by cocktails, music and video images projected onto walls and plasma screens.
The easy part—relatively speaking—was creating such a place, and attracting that 20-/30-something crowd to the town’s newest night light. The hard part has been selling the concept to sophisticated, upscale diners. I, too, was skeptical of the notion that it could be possible to enjoy an intimate dinner there without being jostled by burly professional athletes or stomped by a stiletto-shod junior account exec.
What I discovered, tucked into a corner of the upper-level dining room at 7:30 one recent Wednesday night, was Nashville’s most unique and distinctive dining experience, a serene and sensual ambience, and food that is utterly intoxicating, with flavors that linger in memory long after the meal is done.
Though there is seating downstairs, we were led up the curving, freestanding staircase to the second floor, where Hyndman has brought to life my fantasy of a desert sanctuary, with the soothing color scheme of beige, sandstone, ivory and brown warmed by glazed, tobacco-colored bamboo covering the ceiling. Mahogany cylinders of different heights provide resting spots for cocktails in the bar area, which also has high tops and low seating against two walls; all furnishings were custom-made for Layl’a Rul. The area dedicated to dining is sequestered in the far end of the building, where floor-to-ceiling windows form the long and short wall, and exterior light shimmers through layers of muslin and gauze-like drapes, while oil-burning lamps and candles throw sexy flickers of flame. Low, oval tables, which can be raised and lowered as desired, front cushioned banquettes strewn with plump pillows; if lolling about while eating isn’t your style—though you may be surprised how easily you become seduced by it—bucket-shaped wooden seats line up on the opposite side of the table.
Due to Morocco’s proximity to Spain and Portugal, its extended coastline, its occupation by several different colonial powers, and its usage as a trade route, the country’s cuisine is eclectic and multi-regional. Chef Alderson notes that though his food is Moroccan-influenced, using the signature flavors of cumin, coriander, mint, saffron, ginger, paprika, cinnamon and preserved lemon, the menu incorporates those elements into fusion-oriented dishes created daily by Alderson and his longtime sous chef, Kristen Gregory, using the freshest-available local and regional products.
It is the style of dining that is most unique here—as luxuriously languid as eating in bed, steeped in taste, touch, sight and smell. Diners can go one of two routes: the five-course prix fixe menu, or à la carte. The former will be conducted Moroccan-fashion, the meal preceded by a warm, rosewater hand bath and a towel placed over your shoulder; afterward comes another hand bath. The reason for this is that, in Morocco, much of the eating is done with the right hand, bread being used in addition to the fingers as a utensil.
My suggestion is to divide and conquer, ordering from each menu. Though the salads, soups and entrées are the same on both, there are not-to-be-missed appetizer-sized items on the à la carte menu.
The prix fixe meal begins with ultra bread service—a puffed-up balloon of fresh-baked pita sprinkled with coarse salt and herbs, arriving warm from the oven and perched on shallow puddles of fruity olive oil and pomegranate vinegar. On a separate, divided plate are mounds of creamy hummus, housed-cured olives and walnut goat cheese. Meanwhile, the à la carte diner can dive into the divine global cheese plate—at least half a dozen imported and domestic artisan cheeses accompanied by house-made pickles, olives, shaved serrano ham, pomegranate poached pear, sticky swirls of flavored honey and piquant gooey jams.
The second course is a seasonal soup—in the summer, it was Farmer Dave’s acclaimed heirloom tomatoes; in September, sweet Farmers Market onions; in November, a robust black beluga lentil stew. Each bowl is topped with a quirky bonus: a teensy grilled cheese sandwich, apple-cheddar croustade or feta cheese-mint fritter.
Salads—the third course—are exquisite compositions of seasonal produce joined by earthy partners of roasted duck or salty pancetta, lightly dressed in complementing vinaigrettes.
There are four or five entrées to choose from nightly, typically two fish or crustacean, along with a beef and/or lamb selection. Alderson is renowned for his masterful approach to seafood, and his skills shine on whatever comes off the boat and flies fresh to Music City; line-caught pan-roasted hailbut, Sanibel Island grilled pompano filets in creamy shrimp bisque, and Carolina triggerfish in a warm eggplant-olive oil coulis are recent catches. The kurabota pork loin, called the Kobe beef of pork, is a revelation, butter-tender, moist and the perfect canvas for artistic expression in the form of marinades, glazes and rubs. The classic Moroccan harisa—a spicy paste of red chilies, garlic, olive oil, salt and other seasonings—is frequently used on the pork and is the wake-up flavor on the à la carte menu’s excellent grilled lamb kabobs, cooled by yogurt and mint chimichurri. The prix fixe entrées come with bowls of sides; the cream- and butter-soaked Parmesan polenta with smoked bacon was so lusciously rich I was reluctant to let it leave my mouth.
The final course of sweets is frequently fruits and sorbets, though we were indulged with apple fritters, ginger crisps and vanilla shortbreads to dip into two flavors of fondue. As in Morocco, small cups of hot mint tea close the meal. The prix fixe, five-course option takes about two hours, thus diners who have no interest in the club scene that eventually commandeers the restaurant can be quietly on their way so long as they make a reservation no later than 8 p.m.
Dinner at Layl’a Rul stimulates, scintillates, seduces, sates and soothes. Visiting Morocco is near the top of my “Things to Do Before I Die” list, but in the meanwhile, it’s lovely to know I can feed body, mind and soul in such sumptuous style right here in Nashville, Tenn.