678 Washington St., Norwood
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 12:30 to 8 p.m.
If, when you visit an ethnic restaurant, you can bring a friend who has grown up enjoying the cuisine at family gatherings and holidays, you are very lucky.
If, as you sample various dishes, your friend is transported back to childhood days recalling delicacies made by a grandmother, you have hit the culinary jackpot.
Our party of three - one expert in Middle Eastern cuisine and two neophytes - struck gold at Byblos, which specializes in the food of Lebanon. The restaurant is named for an ancient Phoenician city on the site of the present village of Jbeil, on the Lebanese coast between Beirut and Tripoli.
The large dining room is surprisingly intimate. Warm woods, earth colors, crisp linens, and chandeliers give the room a golden glow. Lighting is soft but not dim. Conversation is easy, thanks to well-spaced tables and acoustical ceiling tiles.
We began with Lebanese wines by the glass ($7-$8). The white was a deep gold color with fruit overtones; the rosé was pleasantly dry; and the red flavorful and satisfying. Our server brought a relish tray of pickled turnip - watermelon-pink slivers that managed to be sweet and sharp at the same time - with olives and a roasted pepper.
Our expert opted for an appetizer of rolled cabbage ($9), which she said she preferred to stuffed grape leaves. Four tender cabbage rolls encased a succulent, dense filling of rice and ground beef, with distinct flavors of lemon, mint, and cinnamon. It was a surprising number of singular tastes in a small package, in a harmonious combination.
Hoping to try as many Lebanese specialties as three people could reasonably devour in one evening, we shared a family platter for two ($44), with hummus, tabouli salad, chicken and beef kabobs, kibbee, stuffed grape leaves, grilled vegetables, and rice, and added an entree of baked kibbee ($18), a house specialty.
For a larger group, our server said he would recommend the mezzah for four ($116), which adds baba ghannouj, fattoush, falafel, and spinach pie - and all but guarantees copious leftovers.
We are used to the supermarket variety of hummus. The Byblos version, which we enjoyed with a generous basket of pita bread, was fluffier and bright with lemon flavor. Tabouli was fresh and crisp, exuding the pungent scent of parsley; a little cracked wheat added a pleasant texture, and the fact that the wheat kernels were still crunchy, not waterlogged, suggests that the dish was freshly made.
The stuffed grape leaves were tasty, but we had to agree with our expert: we liked the cabbage rolls better.
The chicken and steak kabobs arrived with grilled onions, tomato, and pepper atop a platter of rice pilaf. Our server explained that the chicken is first steeped in a citrus marinade, then seasoned, then grilled; it was tangy and moist. The large chunks of marinated beef were tender and flavorful. The rice was pleasantly chewy; I found it a tad salty, but I was the only one who thought so.
The baked kibbee consisted of a ground meat and bulgur wheat outer shell, stuffed with ground beef, onion, and pine nuts. Baked in the oven and served in thick wedges, it’s a little reminiscent of polenta. It had a satisfying bite, and the flavor was rich and nutty.
For dessert we sampled baklava ($4), one of the few confections not made in house, and katayef ashta ($5), a Lebanese pancake stuffed with homemade sweet cream cheese and topped with crushed pistachios.
The baklava was not as sweet as most we’ve tried, which we considered a good thing; its forte was seemingly infinite layers of rich, flaky pastry. The cannoli-like pancakes looked like two small trumpets. The cream cheese filling was not overly sweet, leaving room for a swirl of sugary rosewater syrup on the plate. Moroccan mint tea made a fine beverage with dessert.
Our server was attentive and charming. He adeptly answered questions about the cuisine and the menu, and offered suggestions without being overbearing.
Byblos offers entertainment on Friday and Saturday evenings, beginning around 8:30. When we visited, a band played a keyboard synthesizer along with a doumbek, a traditional drum. A belly dancer performs for an hour or so, beginning around 9.
Even if you don’t know an expert in Middle Eastern cuisine, a visit to Byblos will expand your culinary horizons and make your taste buds very happy.ELLEN ALBANESE