A conversation with Arts: Leya’s Island Grill is still figuring it out
Leya’s Island Grill, Hanover’s newest restaurant, opened in March, promising a mashup of Caribbean and Thai flavors. Four arts writers visited Leya’s on a slow Tuesday night to see how the new eatery stacks up. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed.
Elizabeth Garrison ’21: I read about the restaurant and I didn’t get that it was a Thai place. I knew the current owner worked with the owner of Kata Thai, but it didn’t come to me that it was a Caribbean and Thai restaurant.
Sophie Huang ’21: I think some of the dishes are combined, like barbecue chicken with pineapple fried rice. Or Philly cheesesteak “with an island twist,” according to the menu.
Evan Morgan ’19: This barbecue chicken with pineapple fried rice says it’s served inside a pineapple. Can someone get that? If nobody gets that, I’m going to get it.
All of us agreed that the Caribbean elements of the restaurant — the plantains in particular — had the potential to be a big selling point of Leya’s.
EG: I think I’m going to get a side order of plantains to go.
SH: Plantains are good, and we don’t get them on campus ever.
EG: I’m from Florida, so I’m used to having them with Cuban food.
Sophie ordered the pineapple curry with tofu and Jamaican rice and beans, the dish’s Caribbean twist. Elizabeth had the red chicken curry, and Evan ordered the barbecue chicken with pineapple fried rice, both of which came on with a side of plantains. The barbecue chicken dish is normally served in a pineapple, according to the menu, but our waitress told us Leya’s was out of pineapples.
Betty Kim ’20: Oh wow, are they going to make me add a Thai-style fried egg to this meal for two dollars more? Well, they’re not going to make me, but I’m going to really want the egg. Did anyone get drinks?
EM: I just got water. They don’t have drinks on their menu.
Our waitress told us Leya’s does not have its liquor license yet. Drinks were also missing from its menu — when we asked, our waitress told us they have Thai iced tea, pineapple juice and a selection of soft drinks. Betty ordered the Thai iced tea.
BK: Thai iced tea is a big thing for me. I really like the one from Tuk Tuk Thai.
EM: Did you ever have the one from Thai Orchid? Before they shut down?
BK: I never went to Thai Orchid. I exclusively went to Tuk Tuk, because they were about the same price and about equally good, but Tuk Tuk was closer.
EM: I think the general consensus was that Tuk Tuk was at the top of the Thai food chain, Thai Orchid was slightly below and Kata Thai was far below the top. But I heard the attraction was that Kata Thai was bring-your-own-bottle.
SH: There should be more food in this town that isn’t Thai. Is there jerk anything on this menu? It’s hard to see the “island” part or the “Caribbean” part of this place.
Our waitress came over with the three dishes we had ordered. Betty, whose iced tea also arrived, ordered a pad kee mao to help us compare the drunken noodles at Leya’s to the ones at Tuk Tuk.
BK (sipping iced tea): It’s more white than Tuk Tuk’s — and more sweet and milky.
SH: Not as strong as Tuk Tuk’s?
BK: This is fine, but I do like Tuk Tuk’s better.
EG: I like this red curry dish. It was good. I would probably say that the one at Tuk Tuk was better — and I am a little disappointed with the plantains.
SH: I thought they would be sticky and kind of soft, like they generally are. This is more like plantain chips.
EM: The Thai-Caribbean combination is interesting. Some of it is working and some of it isn’t. In my dish, the chicken combines really well with the fried rice. But I’m not sure I agree with the choice of plantains on the side. I was expecting something a little different.
Betty’s pad kee mao arrived. After a few bites, she had to ask for some Sriracha sauce on the side.
BK: This is really bland compared to Tuk Tuk. I don’t know if that’s the restaurant or the combination with Caribbean food.
SH: This definitely doesn’t feel authentic to any cuisine.
EM: The whole space seems like they’re still trying to figure out who they are. When we came in, they were playing Michael Jackson, and then “Africa” by Toto and then they switched to Nicki Minaj. Now it’s We Found Love by Rihanna.
BK: But I can get behind Rihanna.
SH: How’s the pad kee mao? The one I get at Tuk Tuk is so spicy, and here you had to add Sriracha.
BK: I’ve tried Tuk Tuk’s pad kee mao. You can ask for Thai spicy, and that’s too much spice, but even the regular one is pretty spicy.
EM: I guess if you want more spice here, you have to ask for it. How’s yours, Sophie?
SH: Pretty good. The beans and rice instead of regular rice is interesting.
EM: Does it work?
EG: Personally, I have definitely had yummier beans and rice.
SH: My beans aren’t fully cooked — they’re a bit hard. And the rice has a different texture from Thai rice.
If the food felt a little confused, so did the decor. The tables and chairs were low-slung, modern-looking and brightly colored. Meanwhile, paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and one of the walls was paneled in wood.
BK: The ambience sort of says to me that they’re not sure what they’re trying to do.
SH: I wonder what they’re going for. It seems like two people were planning a restaurant, and they couldn’t decide how to decorate it – modern or more traditional – so they just did both.
With the meal nearly finished, we paid the bill. Our service was very friendly and attentive, although our waitress was only taking care of one other party.
BK: Is it any cheaper than Tuk Tuk?
EM: The prices are either about the same or a little more expensive.
EG: I ate all my food. I was satisfied.
EM: Yeah, on the whole, I’m relatively pleased. I’m just still not convinced that I would come here instead of Tuk Tuk. I felt that was going to be the sticking point with this restaurant: Does it compare favorably to Tuk Tuk? Because they’re both basement Thai places.
BK: The chicken is really weird. I can’t describe it. Here, try a piece. Is that real chicken?
EM (trying a piece of the chicken): It’s super soft. My chicken was more crunchy on the outside and softer on the inside.
BK: That’s the overall theme. A little confused, a little bland, but satisfactory.
EM: My take is that they still haven’t figured out who they are. Even the little things seem a little confused. Our water glasses clearly aren’t part of a set — they’re not supposed to go together.
BK: I realized how much work went into making a restaurant when my parents opened their restaurant. They’ve had three, and my mom does a really good job of doing interior décor without spending a ton of money renovating everything. But it’s hard. If you buy a bunch of nice things and put them together in a room, it doesn’t necessarily all work together.
EM: It’s got to be cohesive somehow.
On the steps up to the street, we shared our final impressions.
EM: Would you all go there again?
BK: To be honest, no, because I would go to Tuk Tuk instead. Overall it was fine – it wasn’t bad. But my meal was about $17 total. It wasn’t worth that much money. The real appeal of Leya’s would be that they had fusion food.
EM: Having a place in town where you can buy plantains is cool. Were they the best plantains I’ve ever had? No.
SH: If I’ve had too much Tuk Tuk in a week or I’m not really feeling anywhere else in town, maybe I would go there.
Leya’s has the potential to be an interesting restaurant, but it has to work out its kinks in order to find a niche in Hanover’s restaurant ecosystem. The liquor license needs to come, drinks need to be placed on the menu and the decor needs a refresh. A greater commitment to Caribbean-Thai fusion would help differentiate Leya’s from Tuk Tuk — and set it up to find success with students.