Byblos

Byblos is a Lebanese restaurant on Madison between 28th and 29th that’s named after the ancient seaside town in Lebanon. For about 30 years the restaurant was located further east, until a nearby fire damaged the building, forcing the business to shutter for two years and eventually relocate.

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The old space was two floors, but the new space is a sprawling, roomy, single-floor expanse that feels so spacious it almost doesn’t fit within the NYC dining-scape. Not only can you stretch your arms out without hitting the next table, but every Saturday belly dancers can freely bound around the floor uninhibited by tables and servers as live music plays for guests.

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That bar, by the way, is home to tons of Lebanese wines that are difficult to find in the city. In fact about 70% of the wine list is Lebanese. Pretty cool, especially since the two glasses I had were both excellent (a Pinot Grigio and a blended red). From what I understand, Lebanese wines are only $6 a glass during their happy hour special. Here’s a look at a glass of one of those wines, with some fresh pita bread:

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The joint is owned by husband and wife Sabeh and Sonia Kachouh, who are both from Lebanon but met here in NYC. Sabeh, pictured below, is the chef, and Sonia runs the front of the house.

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My wife and I were invited here for a press dinner, at which we were able to sample a bunch of mezes, an entree, and a pair of desserts. I recommend getting a large group together and trying out a bunch of mezes when you go here, because they really are the star of the show. See what I mean? Look at all of us foodie assholes scrambling to take photos of them:

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This little platter here, with pepperoncini peppers, carrots, radish and pickled turnip, comes out before the start of the meal for fresh snacking:

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Here’s what we had for the press meal (with some additions I will discuss below):

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The hummus was really smooth, and seasoned just right. In the center was a mound of nicely cooked chic peas.

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The baba ghannouj was creamy and delicate. I typically don’t like eggplant too much, but this was flavorful, with olive oil and paprika on top:

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Muhammara might be my new favorite meze. This was made with red pepper, chic peas and walnuts. It was spicy, earthy and filling. It had a bit more of a granular, paste-like texture than the other dips, so it was substantial as a meal in itself:

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Zataar pies are really unique. Herbs like thyme and sumac jump out and attack your palate with zest. Sesame and olive oil round it out for a perfectly balanced flat bread appetizer. Awesome.

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The stuffed grape leaves here are better than other places where I’ve had them. Inside there are whole chic peas as well as rice and herbs. The leaves were very soft and tender, too, so these little bastards are easy to pop into your mouth over and over and over.

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This fattoush salad had a bright zing to it as well. It was topped with grilled chicken and toasted pita bread, but it was expertly dressed with just the right amount of citrus and herb dressing:

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The tabbouleh salad was a bit too heavy on the lemon for my liking. It was super zesty and bright. I realize that my preferences aren’t necessarily the same as others. I will say that all the ingredients within were fresh and flavorful, though.

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As we ventured on from the veggie mezes, our first meat course was kibbe with laban. This is ground lamb meatballs mixed with pine nuts and cracked wheat in a warm, tangy yogurt sauce. The texture was soft and the flavor was rich, just like an Italian meatball, but the sauce came with the zesty brightness typically associated with Mediterranean yogurt sauces.

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The mixed grill usually comes with three types of meat: lamb shish kebab, chicken shish taouk, and beef kafta kebab. We limited the selection to just the beef and lamb, however, so as not to waste any food (we were already pretty full going into this course). The kafta was really the star here. The minced beef was seasoned aggressively with spices like parsley and cumin, and it stayed juicy from the onion. The meat was super tender, too, and had a nice charred/grilled flavor on the outside.

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The lamb still had a bit of chew to it. Perhaps it could have benefitted from some tenderizer, or maybe a higher heat for a shorter amount of time for a medium rare center. This dish came with sides of rice pilaf and peas. The rice was delicious and cooked just right, with little bits of pasta within. The peas were overcooked for my liking, but they had a good green flavor to them.

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Dessert was definitely interesting here. So often the desserts I encounter at press dinners and other restaurants are the same old bullshit: tira misu, creme brûlée, chocolate lava cake, and on and on. Boring. But here, we sampled some stuff that is common to Lebanese cuisine.

For example, check out this homemade “cheese cake,” which is actually baked, semi-melty and semi-firm goat cheese with a bread crumb and ground pistachio crusted topping. The cheese had a similar texture and flavor to firm mozzarella, and the crust was reminiscent of the coating on a fried mozzarella stick, but sweeter due to the drizzled honey and rosewater that garnished the dish.

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Last but not least was baklava. This famous sweet, near-east treat may be well-worn territory for most Middle Eastern or Mediterranean joints, but for me it is still a refreshing change of pace from the regular dessert grind. This, too, was topped with rose water and honey. It was a bit sweet for most at the table, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve had some over-the-top sweet baklava in my day, and this did not fall into that category for me. The filo dough was really nice too: light, papery and delicious. I think everything was made from scratch.

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Last was a bit of Lebanese coffee. Similar to Turkish coffee, this is served with a thick sludge of coffee at the bottom and steeped with cardamom. It’s an acquired taste, for sure. I’m not sure I’m on board with it, but I did find the flavor interesting, not repulsive. HA!

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That about does it for Byblos. If you’re up for something different, fresh and healthy, then you should definitely get over here for the mezes at the very least. And sample some of the nice, hard-to-find Lebanese wines as well.

BYBLOS
80 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10016

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