In this constantly changing city, very few Manhattan neighborhoods have changed as rapidly as what is now called NoMad (north of Madison Square Park), especially around 29th Street west of Madison Avenue. Once a district of low rent retail and wholesale businesses, it’s in the midst of a dramatic revival, with new hotels, condos and restaurants attracting a young, hip, affluent crowd. It may still be a bit dingy around the edges, but not for long.
Among the many fine places to dine is Byblos, a large, seriously Lebanese restaurant that moved, in 2012, from Murray Hill, where it flourished for 20 years. It’s open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Saturday evening is Lebanese Night, which means live music and belly dancing from 9:30 on. The kitchen is presided over by Restaurateur/Chef Sabeh Kachouch, and the front of the house by his wife, Sonia, a welcoming presence.
If you love mezze – and who doesn’t – the ones whipped up at Byblos are as good as they get. Just the mezze alone would make a perfect lunch or light dinner, as well as a reasonably priced one.
You will be amazed by the restaurant’s rich, silky Hommus ($8), world’s away, in taste and texture, from the leaden stuff now sold in grocery stores. And one of my favorites, Baba Ghannouj ($9), whose foundation is grilled eggplant, is here beautifully studded with Pomegranates, which adds a fresh and delicious crunch to the otherwise creamy puree.
Most of us at the tasting were less familiar with Muhammara ($10), a dip made with red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, rice, chick peas and no cumin. (Lebanese cooking, unlike other mid eastern cuisines, does not incorporate cumin in its dishes.). It was one of our favorites.
So delicious were the mezze that I look forward to heading back to Byblos to try other Mezze, especially their vegetarian Stuffed grape leaves and Zaatar pies.
If you like wine with your mezze, a perfect accompaniment is the restaurant’s reasonably priced and hard-to-find Lebanese wines.
The most extraordinary and – to most of us – unique entrée was the Kibbee with Laban ($22). It’s composed of three hand-formed ovals of ground lamb mixed with cracked wheat and pine nuts, nestled in a specially seasoned hot yogurt sauce. The yogurt sauce was so rich, we were convinced it was actually heavy cream. The secret, it seems, is cornstarch. It keeps the yogurt from separating as it cooks. It’s a fantastic dish. Whatever you do, save room for it.
Meat lovers will enjoy the classic Kebobs, although I found them fairly bland. They needed a more assertive spice marinade. However, I particularly liked the lemony Tabouli that accompanied the dish.
We were offered a very odd dessert, a so-called cheese cake composed of mozzarella, topped with sugar syrup, toasted vermicelli and pistachios. It didn’t work. I would stick with the more traditional Homemade Baklawa (Filo dough baked with honey and nuts).
This is a reasonably priced, comfortable restaurant (tables are set wide apart) I would heartily recommend to friends, out-of-town guests and anyone working or living in the neighborhood. The restaurant was buzzing midweek, so reservations are definitely recommended.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
80 Madison Avenue (Between 28th & 29th Streets)
Hours: Lunch – 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Sunday
Dinner – 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Sunday
Happy Hour 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday ($6 Lebanese Wines, $5 imported beers and $6 mezze)
Lebanese Night – 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Saturday