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Byblos brings "Eastern Mediterranean" cuisine into the heart of the Entertainment District, on Duncan Street. Executive Chef Stuart Cameron has created a menu that includes duck kibbeh, lamb ribs, hand-rolled couscous and Spanish octopus. Influences are taken from Morocco, Turkey and Israel. Dishes are served family style in a stunning space that is light, open and extremely modern.

Review: Club(land) Med

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on April 17, 2014

Thankfully for those of us with long memories, the Middle East evokes images other than perpetual strife and intractable hatreds. Think hand-woven rugs, intricate arabesque ornamentation, puckery preserved lemons and fat olives drenched in oil. Ahhh. So it's with great relief that Byblos (named after a city in Lebanon not the Milan fashion house, dumb ass) triumphantly enters the Entertainment District's foodie fray after weeks of enduring bad bologneses, soggy ceviches and hip but limp noodles. And we have curators of cool Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji (of Ink Entertainment and Icon Legacy Hospitality) to thank for this.

T.O. is once again the proud locale of yet another one of their no-amount-of-money-spared haunts. Hiring designers at Commute Homes to make it happen was a smart choice. The only thing disappointing about their haute, casual by-the-sea elegance is that you can't look over your shoulder and see the Mediterranean whilst sipping on a signature cocktail in cut glassware. Even the marble toilettes could be used for added seating in a pinch. Mais, what else would we expect from a Khabouth and Harji? But Byblos goes way beyond surface beauty with a kitchen brigade dishing out authentic Middle Eastern menu items that are practically unpronounceable: felfel, dukkah, basturma, schug, toum, cacik, pilpelchum. How excitingly exotic. Based solely on the spices from Lebanon, Byblos could very well be an entirely separate import-export business.

Its menu of mostly fish, seafood and vegetarian plates is a refreshing change from menus mostly built on their red meat offerings, though there are a smattering items for die-hard flesh-eaters. Figure it all out while chewing on an order of babari wood-fired bread made in-house at Byblos' sister restaurant, Patria. It's not on the menu as a side, but I demand that it be, if not for the superb crunchy crust then for a superior olive oil drizzle sourced from Israel and Morocco by boutique suppliers. Good luck buying a bottle for your pantry.

Crispy breaded eggplant ($9) with highly seasoned air-cured basturma meat may be a bit on the soggy side with an eggplant and tomato Bayildi sauce and a tahini aioli, but it sure is darn tasty. Much like a duck kebbeh ($7) with tahini; think exalted and elongated falafel balls. But instead of chickpeas, the casing consists of ground duck and bulgur, and a center filled with a melange of duck confit, fig and sabaht baharat, a homemade Lebanese spice blend. Oddly enough, it's a tad chalky considering that duck is such a gloriously fatty bird, but the exotic ingredient combination and unique flavour profile makes this a moot point. Adding a bit more fat to the mix might help elevate it to stellar.

Lamb ribs ($12) should indeed be a rare treat, especially priced so low. But while their exterior is beautifully dusted with dukkah, an Egyptian spice mix with nuts and seeds, their extreme fattiness makes them border on pork belly. And a large puddle of buttermilk sauce adds an unwanted acridness. Back on track is the octopus ($9). Rarely done well and often as tough as leather, these bite-sized pieces are as tender as pillow-soft gnocchi. With an intoxicating Turkish spoon salad sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, it's an app that should be reconsidered as a main.

We're told the Turkish manti dumplings ($12) are a must. Tiny parcels of smokey eggplant are wrapped in a thin, pizza crust-like dough, the size of a quarter. Baked to a textbook golden brown, they're sadly drowning in a knee-deep yogurt sauce that makes half the pocket too soggy to fully appreciate. And the heavy-handed addition of molasses make them a tad too sweet. But a char-grilled cornish hen ($28) the size of a pterodactyl is beautifully moist from brining then cooking with a secret mix of herbs and spices. Served beneath a hillock of crispy leeks and sided with overcooked French lentils to an almost dahl-like consistency takes this otherwise perfect plate down a smidge.

At Byblos, they take rice as deathly serious as the Italians take their pasta. Much like a risotto, these dishes are made a la minute and take at least 30 minutes to prepare. But again, as serviceable as the wild B.C. shrimp basmati rice ($19) with peas, preserved lemon and greens are, not sure it was worth the wait. Alas, the long, noodley-looking rice is also a tad overcooked. And despite being cooked Persian-style in clay pots, the rice could be a lot warmer. If you ask me, I think hand-rolled couscous might have been a better option.

Desserts are admirably all made in house. Even ice creams and sorbets (three for $5). And again it's the flavour combos that excite--at least on paper. A Turkish coffee chocolate sorbet is boldly bitter, but lacks much of a coffee hit; blood orange and rosewater sorbet sounds like a lovely and sophisticated coupling, but it has a musty off-putting aroma; and the marrying of date with tahini for an ice cream might best be saved for a savoury creation. Even a crispy qatayef ($6) is hard to get used to. But its shredded wheat consistency that looks like a rosti or potato latke grows on you, served with sumac-muddled strawberries, honey syrup and ashta cream (a Lebanese type of clotted cream).

Hey, what's wrong with my Philistine taste buds? I finally come across a kitchen with enough courage of their cuisine convictions and here I am criticizing them for it. In spite of a few tsk tsks, I won't conclude without first saying how I truly admire what Stuart Cameron's kitchen is doing in trying to deliver some of the most authentic Middle Eastern fare I've ever sampled this side of the Atlantic. Aside from minor slip-ups, you must go, if for nothing else than for an education in exotic spices.

Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
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