My column is not exactly a soapbox, but it does have some recurring themes: Great chefs understand how to balance fresh ingredients while surprising our palates. Culinary travel is its own reward. Wine/food matchups begin with “What grows together, goes together.” Expand your food spectrum for a journey of unfathomable richness.
All of these touchstones are on display at Byblos Café.
The handsome dining room welcomes guests with a fusion of contemporary chic and Mediterranean Arab accents. The servers are warm and friendly. as befits the philosophy of the owner and family patriarch, Barbar Estephan. He left his native Lebanon to follow his kids to the U.S. and ended up bringing a marvelous taste of home to Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood.
The bill of fare showcases a range of Mediterranean staples, but the way to go is to share a full “taste of Lebanon.” While the menu lists this Middle Eastern smörgåsbord at $32.95 each (with a two-person minimum), these 10 courses (x2) are ample enough to serve a party of four. That, dear readers, is a bargain in any culture.
Our journey begins with cold appetizers. It says a lot about the growth of American gastronomy that hummus, which was largely unknown here a generation ago, is now offered with multiple variations in American supermarkets. But the layers of flavor in Byblos’ version — a fresh blend of chickpeas and sesame paste (tahini) brought together with the brightness and acidity of fresh lemon and some fruity olive oil — put any store-bought brand to shame.
The same is true with the baba ganuj. I’ve never personally found eggplant that thrilling, but Byblos’ extra-smoky version is flat out delicious. Garlic and lemon undertones carry the eggplant to new heights; the flavors are an assertive, pleasing surprise. Unexpected revelation is also the order of the evening with the tabbouleh, the national salad of Lebanon. At Byblos, the ratio of chopped parsley to cracked wheat and tomatoes is higher than I’m used to. But the mint, green onions, and extra virgin olive oil make this dish sing, with the zesty lemon providing a scene-stealing aria. I just want more. The final dip is labneh, thickened yogurt and olive oil with dried mint and a touch of garlic. This mouth-watering dish completes a stunning cold appetizer quartet that, with the basket of delicate, warm homemade pitas, could almost be a meal in itself.
And it would be a shame not to partake of the Chateau Ksara wines from Lebanon’s unique Bekaa Valley microclimate. Phoenician ancestors first cultivated fruit of the vine here centuries before the Romans built Baalbek’s Temple of Bacchus, whose ruins bear eloquent witness to Lebanon’s wine culture. Byblos offers two old-world style blends from Ksara: the white Blanc de Blanc (sauvignon blanc, semillon and chardonnay) and Réserve du Couvent, a medium-bodied red (cabernet sauvignon, syrah and cabernet franc). Both wines have good acidity to cleanse your palate through the entire meal.
The warm appetizers also set a high standard. Falafel never struck me as interesting before, but the small, spiced chickpea patties arrive a beautiful golden brown brimming with exotic Middle Eastern spices and a flavorful balance of onion, garlic, cilantro, and parsley. With a thin drizzle of tahina sauce, they are delightful — as are the hand-rolled dolma, grape leaves stuffed with spiced rice, parsley and tomato.
Add kebbeh — a fried cracked wheat, onion, pine nut and ground beef orb of yumminess with a side of a light garlic spread — and the appetizers close triumphantly.
The entree for this culinary voyage consists of a luscious kabob trio platter. Juicy chunks of marinated beef filet vie for your attention with nicely charred, marinated chicken breasts and kafta, a fat sausage-like mix of ground beef elevated with parsley, onions and a secret mix of other herbs and spices. The meats are covered with a blanket of pitas sprinkled with hot sauce, keeping the dish warm but also adding a spicy kick if you’re so inclined.
For dessert, Byblos has caved in to the public’s obsession with chocolate lava cake. Luckily, in addition to a splendid traditional baklava, there’s also “Ismaliah,” a Lebanese specialty topping fresh ricotta with shredded filo dough, sweet syrup and crunchy pistachios. This is a perfect transition for you to move from your meal to the time-honored live belly dancing that shakes its way throughout the restaurant every Friday and Saturday. It’s a rare chance to enjoy this oldest of dance traditions and even join in for a few moves when invited.
Lift the veil, so to speak, and embrace the challenge to immerse yourself fully in another culture.