Chef Danny Elmaleh's lebaneh yogurt with feta and za'atar is a must-have at Cleo.
Chef Danny Elmaleh's lebaneh yogurt with feta and za'atar is a must-have at Cleo.

Miami Is Having a "Middleterranean" Moment: Byblos, Laffa, and Cleo

This spring, words like "sumac," "za'atar," and "tahini" will become increasingly common in local food circles. The first two refer to spices, while tahini is a sesame-seed paste most notable for its integral role in making hummus. All three are ubiquitous in "Middleterranean" cuisine, which just so happens to be having a moment in Miami.

In case you're wondering, "Middleterranean" is a relatively new term used to describe the dining trend of combining foods from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. Think familiar Mediterranean staples such as vegetables, olive oil, and fish but with the addition of exotic spices and flavors.

See also: Cleo Offers Classy, Affordable Mediterranean Fare in SoBe

Byblos serves Middleteranean cuisine and will open at the James Royal Palm in March.
Byblos serves Middleteranean cuisine and will open at the James Royal Palm in March.
Photo courtesy of Byblos Toronto via Facebook

Last year, talk of Middleterranean cooking dominated food headlines in Toronto as a string of new restaurants serving said cuisine won over crowds and critics. One such eatery was Byblos, and it's no coincidence the second outpost will launch at the James Royal Palm hotel in March.

During a previous interview with Miami New Times, co-owner Charles Khabouth called the concept "Mediterranean but with a twist." Indeed, Byblos' executive chef, Stuart Cameron, blends flavors from Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Morocco for a menu that's both familiar and adventurous. Take, for instance, the slow-braised Ontario lamb leg accompanied by pickles, radishes, toum (an Egyptian garlic sauce), and lavash flatbreads.

Also opening here this spring is Laffa Mediterranean Kitchen, from the successful My Ceviche team of Roger Duarte and Sam Gorenstein. Laffa is a type of Middle Eastern flatbread, and although the menu at the casual build-your-own-plate spot isn't finalized, chef/partner Gorenstein says to "expect favorites like nutty tahini, tart sumac, and floral, herby za'atar."

Duarte says they chose to set up shop in Brickell because they've "been part of the neighborhood for the last couple of years because of My Ceviche and know that this area could use another healthy concept." It's also why the restaurant is committed to using all-natural ingredients and will feature a nutrition calculator on its website.

Artist's rendering of Laffa, soon to open in Brickell.
Artist's rendering of Laffa, soon to open in Brickell.
Courtesy of Laffa.

If we're to take anything from the success of Cleo, a Middleterranean eatery that opened at the Redbury in November, both Laffa and Byblos are likely to be embraced by Miamians. When you think about it, prior to Cleo, there were few spots in the Magic City to enjoy such food. One of the only places was Mandolin Aegean Bistro, which arrived in the Design District in 2010 and was an instant favorite. It was such a hit that the husband and wife behind the Greek/Turkish restaurant will open a second location at the members-only club Soho Beach House in March.

So why is this Middleterranean moment occurring now? For starters, Miami is becoming more of a cultural destination with a more international population, thus partly explaining the increased craving for globally inspired dining options. When it opened, Cleo's half-Japanese, half-Moroccan chef, Danny Elmaleh, said, "The vibrant collage of cultures and cuisines in Miami is very reflective of everything Cleo stands for, and it's brought an exciting energy and flavor to our menu for South Beach."

In the case of Cleo and Byblos, Miami wasn't the first location and followed outposts in other multicultural cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Toronto (Byblos). And whereas the New York market is saturated with food from around the world, Miami is often the logical next destination for many successful restaurants.

Meanwhile, Middleterranean cuisine is generally healthful, and we live in a health-conscious city that's getting only more so. Google "Whole Foods" or "Jugofresh" and you'll get the idea. Then there's Miami's proximity to fresh and tasty seafood -- a key element in this type of cooking. "We're so excited to have access to all these local fisherman and fresh seafood year-round. In Canada, fish isn't as great," Khabouth said.

There are probably additional reasons behind this Middleterranean moment, including the fact this type of food is typically served mezze style (small plates), not unlike Miami's beloved tapas. But the bottom line is we're happy to ride the lebaneh wave. (FYI: Lebaneh is a yogurt-style dip you absolutely must try at Cleo and which will be available at Byblos when it opens.)

Greek Village salad at Mandolin Aegean Bistro in the Design District.
Greek Village salad at Mandolin Aegean Bistro in the Design District.
Photo by Valeria Nekhim

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