Leya's Island Grill opens

by Jacob Chalif | 4/13/18 2:40am

Jamaican-Thai curries, jerk chicken, live music, 15 percent discount for Dartmouth students — Leya’s Island Grill offers many attractions for the Hanover community. The town already boasts an extensive selection of international cuisine, ranging from Nepali dishes to Spanish tapas. Since Leya’s opening on March 6, Jamaican food can now also be added to that list.

Leya’s is located at 6 Allen Street, the former location of Kata Thai. Leya’s owner Gayann Letman had previously worked with the owner of Kata Thai, and when the opportunity arose to purchase the space, she said she could not resist.

“[The Kata Thai owner] decided she wanted to sell, so I said ‘I’ll buy it,’” Letman said. “It was a great opportunity. It’s a nice location.”

She said she named the restaurant after her daughter, Cataleya.

Letman said that she has wanted to own a restaurant since she was a 16-year-old in Jamaica, adding that her family was active in the restaurant business there. A few years later, she moved with her father to New Hampshire, where she went to Newport High School for a year.

Letman’s father Errol Letman owns a restaurant in Claremont called Sunshine Jamaican Style Cook Shop. In addition to helping him run the restaurant there, Letman has also worked in several other restaurants in the region, she said.

Hanover town manager Julia Griffin said that the town is enjoying working with Letman.

“Our planning and zoning staff has worked with her,” Griffin said. “She’s very responsible, very clean.”

Griffin added that the town had “a number of issues” with the Kata Thai owners, ranging from cleanliness to ensuring that a proper supervisory operator was present in the restaurant at all times.

“[Letman] has done a really nice job of stepping in and upgrading the level of service in the restaurant and the cleanliness level,” Griffin said. “I also hear people are appreciating the quality of her cooking.”

However, Letman did not do away with the location’s Thai history altogether. Leya’s has kept Kata Thai’s curries and some of its dishes even incorporate elements of both Jamaican and Thai cuisines.

“Our Thai curries are not soups; they’re like a sauce,” Letman said. “There’s more chicken, and [in the curry there] is rice and beans and plantains. The flavor is amazing and you get a taste of Thai and a taste of the Caribbean all fused together.”

Letman said the two most popular dishes at her new restaurant are the house specials: BBQ chicken pineapple fried rice and jerk chicken. The fried rice, which is served in a pineapple, is another melange between Jamaican and Thai flavors.

Griffin said that Hanover’s array of international dining options reflects the makeup of the community.

“We have a lot of international diversity on the campus and we also have a fairly sophisticated dining population in terms of their willingness to try all sorts of cuisine,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t surprise me that we see that sort of international diversity in the community. People in the region are excited to try new food options.”

Next week, Letman will expand her menu to include more Jamaican options. Over time, she said she plans to continue adding more dishes to the menu.

Nicole Sellew ’21 said she has gotten a “yummy” coconut soup both times that she has eaten at Leya’s.

“It was way better than the soup on campus,” Sellew said.

On Friday nights, local photographic artist and musician Davey Davis provides Leya’s with live music. His photos — nature portraits which are for sale at the restaurant — adorn Leya’s walls.

Letman said she has tried to make the restaurant’s atmosphere like “a little sunshine on a winter day.”

“I like the different colors; I like the paintings on the walls; I like the lights,” Sellew said. “It’s a nice place to hang out.”

Gigi Gunderson ’21, who has eaten once at the new restaurant, said she likes Leya’s because it is a new type of food in town and it is not too expensive.

“I think it’s nice to have any kind of more affordable dining options off campus,” Gunderson said. “I think it’ll have a hard time because it’s really tucked into the town. You have to go find it, and it’s in a basement. But once you go there it’s nice because we don’t really have Caribbean food in town.”

Hoping to attract more students to her restaurant, Letman offers Dartmouth students 15 percent off their entire order if they identify themselves as students at the cash register.

“Come get a taste of the island,” Letman said.