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Arabic Food and a Hookah

Alf Laylah Wa Laylah offers exotic cuisine and belly dancing.

Alf Laylah Wa Laylah means "1,000 nights and one night" in Arabic and is the title of a famous song by Egyptian singer Im Khathoum. It's also the name of a new Arabic restaurant in Chantilly.

It's at 13975 Metrotech Drive in the Sully Place Shopping Center. And since opening two months ago, the restaurant's authentic food, hookah smoking, Arabic music and weekend belly dancing have proven a hit with local residents.

"I come here almost every night — especially Friday and Saturday for all the entertainment," said Rhonda Bell-Khezam of Manassas. "I like the great service, great food, friends and unbelievable atmosphere. It's very warm and family-oriented, and everybody's always smiling and happy here."

IT'S OPEN Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m.-midnight; phone 703-378-6677. It seats 92 people inside, and 40 outside in a grape-arbor setting with twinkling lights.

Owners and partners are Isa Azzouz and Issam "Sam" Ayesh, both originally from Palestine and now residents of Heritage Forest. Their families were friends in Palestine but, said Azzouz, "We lived next to each other in Centreville for two years before we knew each other was there."

Once reunited, though, they talked about opening a local Arabic restaurant. "There's no place in Northern Virginia where you can go and have traditional, Arabic food, smoke the hookah and bring your family," said Azzouz. "The ones in Tysons Corner or Washington, D.C., are more like coffee shops where guys hang out. So we decided to open a nice, clean place with food just like his mom and my mom would cook."

They looked for a site, and Ayesh found this one, next to Midas Muffler. "We started working on it in June," said Azzouz. "Sam and I came here for two months, from 8 a.m. 'til 2 a.m., painting, doing construction and repairs, looking for the right equipment and deciding on the design."

In August, Ayesh traveled to Palestine to get the powder for the restaurant's traditional drinks, plus the seven-spice mixture to season the food. He also brought back Arabic pictures and rugs to add to the ambiance.

Alf Laylah Wa Laylah opened for business, the end of September, mainly drawing customers through word-of-mouth. Chef Mehmet Degismen is originally from Turkey, and he prepares and cooks all the food. "People try the food once and come back," said Azzouz. "And 60 percent of my clientele are American."

Specialties include Shawerma, which costs $8.95 and features marinated, sliced lamb and beef stacked atop each other, cooked slowly and served over rice. Also popular are $6.25 sandwiches in a pita pocket, as well as falafel — chick peas with a touch of parsley and house spices, fried and served with the restaurant's own tahina sauce (made of sesame seed).

The $9.95 lamb and beef kabobs come with six pieces of lean, cubed meat on a big skewer. They've been marinated overnight with spices and charbroiled on the grill with green peppers, tomatoes and onions. Then they're served with yellow, Basmati rice and a salad, plus tahina sauce.

ANOTHER SPECIALTY is Chicken Mosakhan — half a roasted chicken seasoned with the house spices, mixed and cooked slowly with onion sumac (a red-colored, lemony, spice mix) and served over a flat piece of pita bread. And this $8.75 meal comes with rice and a salad.

Entrees also include vegetarian Musaka for $8.75. It's eggplant with tomatoes, onion, garlic, tomato paste and chick peas, baked in the oven and served over rice.

An unusual cold drink is lepen ayran, made with yogurt flavored with a hint of mint, garlic and salt. Or try a hot drink of sahlab — milk with rosewater, sugar and sahlab powder, stirred, cooked and topped with cinnamon. There's also hot tea made with fresh mint and loose-leaf tea, zohourat — an herbal, tea-type beverage, and Turkish coffee. This coffee is very strong, finely ground and flavored with cardamom and sugar.

The appetizers are also exotic. Tabouleh costs $4.55 and is a mixture of parsley, chopped onion, tomatoes and burgul (a wheat flour) served on a bed of lettuce and garnished with lemon slices. The stuffed grape leaves for $6.25 are filled with rice, diced tomatoes and onions with a hint of parsley. And Kibeh, $4.95, is burgul stuffed with chopped lamb, pine nuts and onions with house spices.

Desserts are all homemade and real, culinary treats. Kenafa is made of katifa dough (like phyllo) and topped with sweet, soft, Arabic cheese, as well as pistachios and a homemade syrup that tastes like rosewater.

Also offered is baklava, made with phyllo dough and stuffed with walnuts, cinnamon and the homemade syrup. Kenafa is $3.75 and baklava is $2.75 and, said Azzouz, "Both are very popular." Or try halaya, $3.75, served cold in a glass. It's a tasty mixture of milk, cornstarch and rosewater flavoring topped with pistachios and coconut.

Azzouz attributes the restaurant's success to the food, friendly family atmosphere and service. "Everybody gets the same attention," he said. "We want customers to come in and feel at home. If something's not on the menu — something, for example, like their grandmother made — and they can't find it anywhere, we'll try our best to make it for them."

He's been surprised by how many Americans are familiar with Arabic food, and he believes his is extra-special. "We marinate our meat with spices, overnight, and we use extra-virgin olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice."

For the hummus and dry appetizers, said Azzouz, "We use dry chick peas, boil them and then add spices and fresh lemon juice. And it's exactly the same as people's grandmothers used to make for them in the Middle East."

SAMINA PARACHA of Chantilly Greens learned about Alf Laylah Wa Laylah from her daughter and dined there recently with her sister. They both enjoyed Chicken Shawerma in pita bread with garlic sauce.

"I lived in Saudi Arabia 15 years, so I'm familiar with this, and I'd rate this restaurant's food No. 1," said Paracha. "The meat was nice and the garlic sauce tasted very good. And I like the way it looks in here — it has both traditional, Arabian sitting areas and chairs and tables."

Her sister, Safia Bibi, also of Chantilly Greens, liked the food, service and atmosphere. "I have a big family, and I would recommend this restaurant to others," she said. "I'm really impressed with it."

In the four corners of the room — bordering the tables and chairs — are areas where people sit on the floor on a raised platform with pillows and eat their food on small tables. It's fun and relaxing and, said Azzouz, "Often, these seats are reserved a week in advance — by the Americans."

The restaurant also has hardwood floors, mahogany tables and walls adorned with Turkish hats; vases; drums; ancient dresses; a sword; pictures of Middle Eastern scenes and people; handwoven wall hangings and plants. Lively Arabic music plays in the background, and there's a belly dancer on Friday and Saturday nights. She starts entertaining between 9:30 and 10 p.m. and dances for an hour. "And the customers join in, big time," said Azzouz. "Everybody enjoys it. Those nights are usually reservation only because we're packed."

Alf Laylah Wa Laylah also has a smoke eater under the ceiling to zap smoke so it doesn't linger in the air. That's because, although certainly optional, hookah smoking is part of the restaurant's charm and appeal. The hookah is a traditional, Middle Eastern pipe used for smoking natural, flavored tobacco containing molasses and honey.

It's a tall glass vase with water in the bottom and flavored tobacco inserted in the top, and a long pipe feeding into the vase. It costs $8.75 to use and the smoke lasts about 35 minutes. Tobaccos are mainly fruit-flavored, such as double apple, strawberry, peach and apricot, and there's even cappuccino. Said Azzouz: "People come here and eat, smoke a hookah and relax."