Spicy, sweet, tender, and toothsome only begin to describe the lamb ribs at Byblos, the new Eastern Mediterranean eatery at the Royal Palm South Beach. To give the starter its sensual mix of flavors and textures, the meat is cooked sous vide for 24 hours before being brushed with carob molasses. It's then dipped in dukka, an Egyptian spice blend of toasted nuts and seeds that lends a lovely crunchiness to the protein. The heat is a result of a light coating of skhug, a Middle Eastern hot sauce.
On a recent night, the ribs come highly recommended by a waiter, who enthusiastically adds, "Oh, you guys are going to have so much fun here!" And he's not wrong — Byblos is a good time.
It begins with the space: a high-ceilinged, two-story affair themed to transport you to a chic isle in the Mediterranean. As you settle into one of the plush turquoise or gold booths and prop yourself up with a graphic-print throw pillow, you can't help but smile and relax. The pop music also helps. Then there's the beverage menu, starring an impressive array of cocktails. One example: the lively Gulab, which pairs Absolut Elyx vodka with pomegranate syrup, fresh lemon, and rose water. Not too sweet or floral and nicely tart, it complements a wide array of menu items.
Byblos also lists beers and affordable wines from Lebanon, Israel, Spain, and Greece in addition to a spirit-infused cold tea service rolled to your table on a special trolley. Don't drink alcohol? Not a problem — they'll gladly serve you a virgin version of one of the signature libations or fragrant tea in exotic flavors such as Moroccan mint, hibiscus rose, and Turkish delight. After all, Byblos' focus is on interpreting dishes from Levantine culture, found mostly in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and parts of southern Turkey, where a large portion of the population shuns alcohol.
The restaurant's owners — nightlife impresario Charles Khabouth and his business partner, hospitality maven Hanif Harji — rarely drink, but that's largely because they're too busy running a restaurant empire. Indeed, the men whom Canada's National Post in 2014 declared "kings of Toronto's dining scene" operate six high-profile eateries, and Byblos Miami is their first venture outside Ontario. It's an offshoot of the original in Toronto, which debuted a year and a half ago, capitalizing on the city's budding desire for Middle Eastern cuisine. Byblos immediately earned praise from the city's top critics as well as locals.
Deciding to open in South Beach resulted from a combination of the partners' affection for the city (Khabouth has been coming here for 20 years and Harji for six), a good deal on the location, and the acknowledgment that Miami is experiencing a culinary renaissance of sorts, with "Middleterranean" cuisine in particular gaining traction. The relatively new term is used to describe the dining trend of combining foods from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. If Byblos is a success in the 305, it could mean further expansion in the United States for the Canadian entrepreneurs.
Tanzania-born Harji is more involved on the culinary end, though Byblos hits especially close to home for Khabouth. The rail-thin nightclub owner and father of two is from Lebanon, and Byblos marks his first foray into Middle Eastern cuisine.
The restaurant's executive chef in Miami and Toronto is the Australian-born Stuart Cameron, who in addition to helming the kitchen at Byblos also oversees several of the partners' other food concepts. He trained at Box Hill Institute in Melbourne, Australia, before moving to North America in 2004 and making a name for himself in Vancouver and then Toronto.
As is often the case with Miami outposts, this location boasts a more extensive seafood selection than its northern sibling. It's also equipped with a wood-burning oven, used to bake pide (Turkish flatbread) and barbari bread (Persian flatbread) each morning. Pillowy and perfectly golden, the barbari bread is dusted with the kitchen's personal za'atar spice mixture. Order it with a plate of roasted red beets and organic labneh — a thick, tangy yogurt-like dip that's cultured in-house.
Chef Cameron plans to split his time evenly between Miami and Toronto and says he and his team were fortunate to land Nelson Fernandez as Byblos' chef de cuisine. Fernandez's previous gig was at Soho Beach House in Miami Beach; however, his friendship with Cameron dates back several years to when they were chefs at Nyood, one of Harji's restaurants in Toronto that's now closed.
After my guest and I sample a few mezzes (small plates), our waiter's comment about Byblos not being a typical hummus-and-baba-ganouj spot is confirmed. But while some dishes, such as the lamb ribs, benefit from a complex flavor profile, others suffer because of it.
Take, for instance, the sweet jeweled rice entrée, otherwise known as Persian wedding rice owing to its popularity at traditional nuptials. At Byblos, the basmati rice is cooked to order and arrives in a dark lidded pot. Decidedly celebratory, it's decorated with pistachios, rose petals, pomegranate seeds, almond slivers, and crisp julienned carrots. But its beauty is eclipsed by its dryness and cloying sweetness. Barberries (ubiquitous in Iranian cookery) inside the rice are supposed to lend tartness to the dish, but they go undetected.
Another item suffering from a case of excessive sugar is the duck kibbeh appetizer. A signature Levantine dish, kibbeh typically consists of bulgur, minced onions, and either spiced beef, lamb, goat, or camel meat packed into a croquette shaped like an American football. Conversely, Byblos' interpretation is proffered with dried figs and duck confit. The crunch is terrific, but the confit gets lost in the sweetness.
A mezze found in the raw section of the menu is called salmon kibbeh, yet it bears little resemblance to the aforementioned cooked kibbeh. Think salmon tartare studded with bulgur and topped with a dollop of labneh. The consensus: It's too fishy and disappointing overall.
Byblos' grilled Spanish octopus is a better seafood bet, though it would be excellent if it were cooked a bit longer. A main of grilled local snapper comes to the table drenched in chermoula, a pungent Moroccan herb sauce that overpowers the fish. The snapper is left virtually untouched, but the bold and fresh fattoush salad, with heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, sumac, and chickpeas, gets gobbled up instantaneously.
For dessert, we order chocolate mousse filled with a house-made baklava crumble with pine nut praline. A ball of whipped labneh sits atop it, while pomegranate seeds dot the plate. The creamy-crunchy play of textures is polished and commendable — a nice end to an otherwise uneven meal.
Still, when our courteous waiter, and later the assistant manager, inquires about dinner, we can't help but smile and say it was great. It's partly because there are, in fact, some culinary standouts here and partly because we really enjoyed our cocktails and listening to Michael Jackson wafting from the speakers. But ultimately, it's because Byblos' potential to be great is evident in the caliber of ingredients and the creativity of its chefs. What's more, it's exactly the kind of upscale yet unstuffy ethnic restaurant that Miami needs during its Middleterranean moment. Here's to betting on a brighter future for Byblos.
Lamb ribs $16
Roasted red beets with labneh and
Sweet jeweled rice $21
Duck kibbeh $14
Salmon kibbeh $18
Spanish octopus $18
Grilled local snapper with chermoula MP
Fattoush salad $13
Chocolate mousse $10
1545 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-508-5041; byblosmiami.com. Dinner daily 6 p.m. to close.
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