I wasn't familiar with the lamb chops and have found that even the hummus at my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant tastes re-hydrated at times. Watching the renovation, I just wondered whether Byblos' olive oil would be fruitier than Lebanon Cafe's, whether the shawarma would be juicier than at Mona's Café on Frenchmen Street or the bread more satisfying than the focaccia-like loaves at Babylon Cafe. While the answer was negative on all accounts, I discovered completely unanticipated reasons to love and to avoid Byblos. In several ways, this new restaurant has created a niche for itself.
Partial-owner Gabriel Saliba's Lebanese pedigree contributes to the menu's array of familiar Middle Eastern offerings, a few of which have little local competition as far as I've tasted. Kafta kabobs, like soft sausages without casings, are alive with the sharpness of barely-cooked garlic and parsley. At $5.95, a kafta kabob sandwich came with both hummus and lebna, a tart yogurt spread. Baba ghanoush, a puree of charred eggplant and tahini, is unusually light -- almost a mousse -- the smoky char not overwhelming eggplant's subtle fruitiness. And crisp-skinned falafel, garbanzo and fava beans mashed into a batter and deep-fried, are garlicky and coarsely textured, like premium whole-grain bread; as an appetizer, they too come smothered in tahini sauce.
This ubiquitous tahini sauce, tatatour, is more versatile than catsup at a family reunion. It calms the scream of raw garlic and revives the sluggishness of charred meat. The lamb taratour appetizer drives home the sauce's strengths, marrying tender, cinnamon-scented lamb, warm and tangy tatatour and the hollow crunch of pine nuts.
On the other hand, hummus fluctuates between standard and flat; chicken kabobs smack merely of grilled chicken; and beef shawarma is so bloated with vinegar the only appropriate reaction is to pucker. Ashta is a softball of warm, milky custard baked inside layers of phyllo dough and garnished with pistachios and flower water syrup. One male at my table called it "girlier than my grandmother's perfume"; it would make a lovely dessert for someone with my own sensibilities if the doughy phyllo was allowed to cook through.
Byblos' subtitle, "Mediterranean Cuisine," accounts for the other half of the menu, not including the hamburger. Slabs of squeaky, salty sheep's milk cheese from Cyprus soak up anise flavor as they share a fire with Ouzo liqueur; this wonderful Drunken Halloumi is served as an appetizer with raw tomato and a stinging puree of garlic. I don't remember trading $4.50 for a better Caesar salad. Toasted pita chips take the place of croutons, and a basic garlic-lemon-Parmesan dressing has a pinkish hue and a smoky, bitterish tinge that I guessed came from sumac; my server, who didn't know, let me keep guessing.
While the current economic slump doesn't keep Byblos' deep dining room and multi-meter bar from bustling on most nights, a few entrees that approach $20 are unnerving enough to keep certain friends of mine away. My advice for the thrifty: Stick to the ultra-reasonable left side of the menu. My advice for deeper pockets: Splurge on the lamb. My advice for everyone: Don't bother with filet Provencal. The tenderloin medallions, stewed vegetables and Dijon-garlic mashed potatoes will fill you up, but there are more effective ways to make your mouth sing (see lamb taratour above).
A serious bar culture separates Byblos from the many Muslim-owned, BYOB Middle Eastern restaurants around town. The wine selection suggests a sommelier and ranges from California's Francis Coppola to Italy's Peter Zemmer to Lebanon's Chateau Musar. I've seen a sea of cobalt-blue button-downs facing frosty martinis at the bar in the late afternoon. It's just as hip to pull up a stool for espresso not Turkish coffee, mind you.
The smart decor also implies an unprecedented classiness. The bar itself is shiny and black, the woodwork surrounding it dark and moody. Rusty-red and mustard-yellow walls are separated by a high, slate-colored pressed tin ceiling. Leggy columns and white-clothed tables reach from the open kitchen in back to the tall windows overlooking Magazine Street.
And just outside, tables join the hottest strip of al fresco dining in the city. With the occasional Magazine Street drag race and pedestrians looking for leftovers, it may not be as quaint as Exchange Alley or Lake Pontchartrain. But the staff welcomes diners ordering mousaka and lemonade as warmly as those who come for Merlot and lamb chops. It's a new breed, this Byblos.