You remember the Phoenicians -- great seafarers, wily traders, but also the inventors of the high-speed portable word processor. Writing on papyrus, the Phoenicians were the first folks to use a modern alphabet of individual letters signifying speech sounds, instead of tediously inscribing "whole word" symbols on, say, clay slabs. At the vibrant port of Byblos (17 miles from present-day Beirut), where papyrus grew like weeds, the locals evidently scribbled so profusely that the city's name became the root of the Greek word for "book" -- and eventually for "Bible."
Byblos the city is currently buried under 3,000 years of trash and old Tom Clancy novels, but Byblos the Lebanese restaurant now lives and flourishes on Lombard Street. What piqued my interest was a glowing mention on the latest papyrus upgrade, a Web bulletin board frequented by local food fanatics. A couple of nights earlier, scouting Mediterranean restaurants, I'd been direly disappointed by a newish joint where all the appetizers had obviously come from the same wretched falafel factory that supplies my corner deli. I wanted -- needed -- a truer, finer rendition to clear my palate, restore my nerves, replenish my faith in humankind.
Arriving at Byblos on a Sunday night, we found a long, simple honey-colored dining room with a banquette along one wall and well-spaced tables along the other; all tables are covered with white linen (no shirking the laundry here with paper or glass!). Middle Eastern music plays on the sound system, enticing aromas waft from the kitchen, and local residents from all the nationalities of the Fertile Crescent, the Caucasus, and the Caspian mingle with Marina-neighborhood "regulars." Some nights (but luckily not that night), half the room may be given over to a dozen or more banqueters feasting by prearrangement on a whole, stuffed, roasted 60-pound lamb -- enough to feed up to 20. (If you want your own sheep at the restaurant or elsewhere, call 48 hours ahead.)
Our attentive server was the daughter of the chef/co-owner, 63-year-old Labibi Maamari. The prodigious menu offers no fewer than 21 meze (maza in Lebanese), or small appetizers, at $4.50 each or a choice of any six for $24 -- a full meal for a pair of light eaters. All the usual suspects are on hand, albeit in distinctive renditions -- the baba ghanouj, for instance, is pale, tart, and smoky, made with tahini and lemon rather than the more routine olive oil. Thin cylinders of deveined grape leaves stuffed with lemony rice are distinguished by the delicacy of their texture. We were more intrigued, though, by the less common offerings.
We tried the "Byblos pickles" -- tart, sprightly nuggets of turnip and cucumber, supplemented with mixed olives to compensate a run on pickled eggplant the previous weekend. Tahalat, baked lamb spleen stuffed with cilantro, garlic, and hot pepper, was a stunner: The meat had the texture of velvet, and its filling was almost Caribbean in its complexity and fire. "Every bite's a surprise, a little mystery," said TJ. "Depending on what part you're eating, you don't know which flavor combination you'll hit." Sambousik were also delightful -- four small, flaky pastry half-moons (the menu calls them "mini-calzone" but the dough's much lighter) were filled with a moist, subtly seasoned mixture of chicken, onions, and pine nuts.
There was also a quartet of "Appetizers for the Initiated" ($9.50 each), Lebanese specialties rarely found elsewhere, served in larger portions. We chose kibbeh nayeh, a Levantine beef tartare of finely minced raw meat blended with chopped herbs and a little fine-milled cracked wheat, served at room temperature. It arrived with a carafe of olive oil to drizzle on, and with a plate of mint leaves and scallion as condiments to add at will. We found the mixture especially delicious stuffed into fresh, warm pita bread.
If you're still hungry after the irresistible appetizer-grazing orgy, there are soups (lentil) and salads like tabbouleh, fattoush, and dandelions with onion ($4.75 each), and 10 main courses. (Bargain hunters can choose one of three grilled entrees, along with a set quintet of appetizers and a baklava dessert for $20.) Since so many of the appetizers are vegetarian-friendly, we tried the sole fleshless entree, shish barak ($11.50), house-made cheese ravioli. Tender pasta squares, filled with melty herbed ricotta, were bathed in a tart, herb-flecked yogurt sauce richly seasoned with lemon juice, garlic, mint, black pepper, and (I think) finely minced chives. Yogurt or not, I doubt this qualifies as a low-cal dish; the texture is as rich as cream sauce, even if the flavors are sharper.
For our second main course we were vastly tempted by a dish for which Byblos is noted, lamb chops with pomegranate and honey sauce. Instead, though, we subjected the kitchen to the more strenuous test of relative austerity, with lamb shish kebab ($13.50).
The kebab consisted of a bamboo skewer of 1-inch cubes of lamb tenderloin, which lived up to the name of their cut. The delicious, melting meat was not wet-marinated, but had been rubbed in tangy sumac and other aromatic spices before being cooked precisely to my order of "nice and pink inside." (This alone breaks the mold for Middle Eastern eateries; aside from a couple of great, defunct Armenian restaurants in Manhattan, most cook lamb no less than medium-well no matter what you ask for.) Alongside was a charming mixture of grilled vegetables, with carrots and pale-skinned, zucchinilike Lebanese summer squash. And then there was the pilaf -- an extraordinary pilaf, with plump, moist, perfect grains of a medium-length rice, pale brown in color, scattered with red sumac powder and a soupçon of hot pepper. "Why is your mother's pilaf so much better than mine?" I plaintively asked the waitress, secretly hoping for the real answer. "We use saffron," she said. Well, yes, at second glance I saw plenty of vermilion saffron threads, and they surely helped -- but that's not it. I think it's the cooking liquid. It's not Swanson's chicken broth, not even Wise's chicken broth, certainly not water. I'd better go find a Sphinx to ask.
The day's desserts depend on what Mrs. Maamari fancies making: delicate crepes filled with sugared walnuts and drizzled with rose-water syrup, short pastry filled with pistachios .... We were too satiated to face any dessert, but our server sweetly insisted that we at least try a tiny piece of the house-made baklava. And it was splendid baklava -- a crunchy phyllo square filled with a single thick layer of chunky chopped pistachios, lightly bathed in barely sweet, perfumed syrup. (Some weekends, the crowds even eat up all the baklava and the restaurant has to buy it until Mrs. Maamari has time to make some more -- so if you're thinking of ordering it, ask if it's house-made.)
Sipping Turkish coffee, nibbling the exemplary not-too-sweet sweet, I finally sat back and sighed, the memories of our bad meal elsewhere obliterated, in fact all our worries blissfully erased. The food was so sensual, so rewarding, I felt like I'd just had a warm bath and a massage; it was so engrossing, I felt like I'd been enjoying a good book. Only, the next time, I'll have a deeper bath and a longer book -- I'll go on a Thursday night to beat the weekend's locusts to the harvest.