Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Taste Of The Mid-East In South Tampa

It was during an all expense paid vacation courtesy of Uncle Sam back at the start of 1991 that I realized I am not a fan of Middle Eastern cuisine. I never could have imagined that the Saudis could totally screw up a Wendy's burger either, but they did.

Anyway, at the urging of my bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, and after reading the review of Byblos Cafe by my friend Sweet Polly, I decided to give this Lebanese eatery a try. The Byblos Cafe is located on MacDill Avenue in south Tampa which is a plus for me since I didn't have to drive to the ends of the world to get there.

Byblos has indoor and outdoor seating, and the outdoor area truly beckoned. The heat and humidity of an August evening suggested strongly that we dine indoors. So we did. Dine indoors, that is.

A little Arak whimsy in the digital darkroom. 
Two of those could certainly cause one to lose their head.
We entered through the backdoor and then through a small grocery area stocked with Middle Eastern delights. My bride recommended that we avoid the heavy MacDill traffic and park in the rear.

Entering the restaurant, we were greeted by a very charming young lady who turned out to be our server for the evening. Natalie guided us to our table and presented us with menus and two glasses of refreshing ice water.

While perusing the wine list I was surprised to see Ouzo listed amongst the wines. When I questioned Natalie she confirmed that it really was an Ouzo-like beverage, that was actually Arak or Araq - a highly alcoholic spirit from the anis drinks family. It is the traditional alcoholic beverage of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and Syria.

I ordered a glass and my bride chose a delightful Lebanese red Kefraya Breteches - a slightly smoky full bodied wine. This red blend comes from the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. It is composed of 66% Cinsaut (Cinsault), 15% Tempranillo, 10.5% Syrah, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2.5% Carignan.

As we sipped our beverages, a basket of flat bread was brought to our table with a bowl of a very interesting dipping sauce composed of olive oil, sesame seeds, thyme, and sumac.
The Arak is served straight on the rocks. 
As an aperitif, it is best diluted with a glass of ice water.

Sumac has a tart flavor that is very nice sprinkled on fish, chicken, over salad dressings, rice pilaf, or over raw onions. There are poisonous and non-poisonous varieties. Thankfully, we were served the latter.

Recently I watched one of the Travel Channel hosts enjoying a Lebanese delicacy that tempted my taste buds and I was pleased to see Kebbeh Nayeh on the Byblos menu. Kebbeh Nayeh is prepared with fresh raw lean beef blended with cracked wheat and spices.

This was a very tasty appetizer that easily could be enjoyed by four people.

Recognizing that we were relatively new to Lebanese foods, Natalie gave us a few suggestions on how to enjoy this appetizer. 

One recommendation was to slather a spoon full on a slice of flat bread, top with a bit of onion and a sprig of mint, shake on a little salt, and finally add a few drops of olive oil.

We tried it that way and it was good. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy Kebbeh Nayeh - just whatever pleases you.

My beautiful dining partner, having dined previously at Byblos, pretty much knew in advance what she was going to order as her entrée - the Gyro Dinner, thinly sliced spiced beef and lamb served with green salad, hummus dip and tahina sauce.

The correct pronunciation of 'gyro' is actually a soft 'g', which is very hard for most Americans to get right; although, 'yeer-oh' seems to be a close phoenetic spelling.

Regardless of how it's pronounced, my bride declared it to be delicious and offered me a taste. I had to decline because I was under the spell of my dinner choice.

I had been torn between the Baby Lamb Shanks and the Fresh Lamb Chops marinated with olive oil, herbs and spices. I asked Natalie which one she would recommend and she said that while both are good the chops were her favorite. Well, alrighty then, bring'em on and make them medium rare.

Heavens to Murgatroyd! Those four, inch thick chops were the very best I have ever had in this life. Flavorful. Juicy. Tender.

If I had any more room in my stomach I would have ordered another serving. I didn't, so I didn't. Those lamb chops alone would be reason enough to head back to Byblos.

Neither my bride nor myself had any room left for dessert which was a shame because there were a few dandies on the menu.

All of that delicious food along with adult beverages, plus a well deserved gratuity for Natalie came to just a tad under a hundred bucks.

Byblos Cafe changed my opinion of Middle Eastern foods.

Byblos Cafe on Urbanspoon 

Byblos Cafe on Foodio54

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