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A Taste of the Middle East in West Palm Beach

Healthful Syrian and Lebanese cuisine and Middle Eastern cultural entertainment dot the menu of new "destination restaurant" in downtown's revitalized Clematis Street District.


West Palm Beach, Fla. - Amid the revitalized Clematis Street District, in a casual chic restaurant where contemporary design complements interpretations of classic Moroccan style, guests drink ethnic wines and partake in the art of mezze, the Middle Eastern tradition where generous portions of cuisine are shared among friends.


A myriad of salads and dishes - such as falafel, tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves and hommous - dot tables accented by candlelight, creating a collage of Mediterranean fare. Dinner entrees follow and include such delicacies as grilled kefta kebab, shrimp with cilantro, gilled fish and lamb.


After their feast is done, some guests engage in a centuries old rite-of-passage by smoking the arguileh and savoring the smoothness of the fruitful pipe tobacco. Others sip on Turkish coffee and shai (tea) while marveling at the ancient art of belly dancing.

At the corner of Datura and Dixie in downtown West Palm Beach, one block south of Clematis Street, a cosmopolitan Middle Eastern bistro called Leila will provide discriminating palates with an exotic dining experience when it opens May 17.


Featuring Syrian and Lebanese cuisine - which features elements of the Mediterranean diet that is drawing attention for its health benefits - Leila's menu features authentic regional dishes and a vast selection of mezze delights, including silken hommous, hot and crisp falafel, fava bean salad, roasted red pepper dip and baba ghanouj. Savory grilled chicken, fish and meats compose the entrees, which are served with rice or couscous and vegetable de jour.


"Mezze is the Middle Eastern way of dining," said Roy Assad, who owns Leila with his wife Evelyn. "It's the type of food that evokes sharing - like a gathering of family and friends at home."


Leila - which is the Arabic word "exotic night" - is Roy and Evelyn's carefully planned creation. Roy understands the dining and cultural traditions of the Middle East. He was raised in Damascus and lived in Beirut before embarking for a better life with his mother and siblings in the United States in 1973 when he was 18. Assad was skilled in crafting and selling leather goods, and without knowing a word of English, he and his brother found a job two days after arriving in Jersey City, New Jersey via New York City.


Within a year, Assad accepted a filing position at a State Farm Insurance agency owned by Doug Barrett, who served as president of Gideon's International, a non-profit Christian organization. Interestingly, Barrett knew about Assad's family before they immigrated to the United States. He provided financial support that Assad's mother used for food, clothes and housing for her family.


Assad joined Barrett's company in 1974, advancing to a sales position and eventually becoming the nation's top selling State Farm agent. He founded RBA Strategies, a firm that markets corporate benefits, in 1986 and now has offices in New York City and West Palm Beach.


As RBA Strategies grew, so did Roy and Evelyn's passion for fine dining. With their three children, they visited several elegant Middle Eastern restaurants in south Florida, New York City and around the world, absorbing the strong points and weak points of each eatery.


After consistently driving more than 30 minutes from West Palm Beach for the nearest Middle Eastern restaurant, they decided to open a "sophisticated eatery with an upbeat and contemporary atmosphere and an exciting menu of Middle Eastern delicacies served with Syrian hospitality at its finest."


Roy and Evelyn hired restaurant marketing expert Aaron Allen to design a marketing plan and then assembled their team, which includes service-oriented manager Jeff Struble, formerly of Mark's at CityPlace; and an experienced and innovative chef, Alex Awad. Then they designed an interior that showcases contemporary design with interpretations of classic Moroccan Style, integrating natural elements such as fresh flowers, wheat grass, water features, smooth river rocks, jewel tones and carefully selected accents.


Believing in the development potential for the Clematis Street District, Assad chose to open Leila in the midst of a downtown West Palm Beach area that is experiencing a renaissance. Assad, whose corporate headquarters for RBA Strategies is located in the historic Comeau Building on Clematis Street, envisions a time in the near future when the Clematis Street District will bustle with pedestrians flocking to fine dining establishments, trendy boutiques and quaint coffee shops.


"We're raising the bar on the Clematis Street District," Assad said. "It's only a matter of time before this area is dotted with nice restaurants and shops. We wanted to be a pioneer and be a part of the Clematis Street revitalization at its early stages."


Leila is not just a restaurant, but it is also a destination where patrons can savor Syrian and Lebanese cuisine, and experience the romance and mystery of Middle Eastern culture.


Joe Zeytoonian, a renowned musician who has recorded with Gloria Estefan and Shakira, and is well-versed in Middle Eastern fretless stringed instruments, will perform with the electric ud at Leila on Friday evenings.


A professional dance performer and instructor, Dawn Askins will entertain Leila patrons with what perhaps is the Middle East's most mysterious and misperceived art forms - belly dancing - on Thursday and Saturday nights. What Americans know as belly dancing was originally called "Raqs Sharqi (rah-iss share-kee)," or Dance of the East. The enigmatic art form was not dubbed as "belly dancing" until the Chicago World Exposition in 1893.


While listening to the harmonious sound of the ud and marveling at the art form of belly dancing, Leila guests may also try another Middle Eastern tradition. Commonly known as the water pipe in America - it is also called shisha, nargile and hookah in other parts of the world - the arguileh (are-gee-lay) is a smoking device that consists of a bowl mounted on a vessel of water which is provided with a long tube and arranged so that smoke is drawn through the water where it is cooled, and sent up the tube to the mouth. The tobacco is a smooth, molasses-fused blend with the fruitiness of apples, apricots, mint and cherries.


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