New Lebanese cafe brings an authentic taste of Beirut to Northern Ireland
Until the Sixties Beirut, the Lebanese capital, was nicknamed Paris-on-Mediterranean. The port city was a mecca for the ocean liner and turbo-prop set (the jet set was still in nappies in the mid-20th century). It had all the glamour and sexiness of pre-revolution Shanghai, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles.
Lebanon had, and maintains, a fabulous agricultural industry including the famous Hochard vineyard where the Chateau Musar wine is made (despite frequent strafing of the vines during grape harvest by the Israeli airforce in the ’80s and ’90s, it still manages to maintain its reputation as one of the best red wines in the world). But none of this is surprising when you consider that the multi-denominational Lebanese have been at the heart of international trade for 2,000 years or more and have adopted the best bits of a hundred cultures.
Was it any wonder then that Lebanese food acquired a reputation all over the Mediterranean as a wonder and marvel? However, the unstoppable rise of Lebanese restaurants of the last 30 years has only now found a foothold in Belfast.
For a culinary development as significant as this, Byblos doesn’t look or act like the bridgehead of a glorious invasion. The modest, cafe-canteen is almost soulless in its bland cube of tiled space overlooking Brunswick Square. The hard wooden tables and chairs and tinny echoing sounds of Middle Eastern music, however, give off an almighty whiff of authenticity that compares readily to Lebanese restaurants in London, Marseilles and Madrid.
To seal the authenticity is a band of smiling young men from Beirut which includes the owner, a chef and a more nimble and athletic server, although they seem to readily swap roles when things get busy. The vertical lamb spits in front of the roaring gas grills, an image firmly associated with Friday night take-away kebabs, are visible to all — much of the cooking is done in the restaurant dining room behind the bar.
The exquisite, light bread that is the foundation of any meal in Byblos is baked round the back, where chunks of chicken, lamb and beef marinate in lemon, chilli, harissa and garlic sauces ready for the meshwi skewers and wraps (£3.95). The beautifully smokey baba ghanoujj made from an aubergine puree, the hummus and tabbouli dips are all made here too.
In terms of a total Lebanese culinary experience, it’s nearly all there but there are distinct signs that Byblos is cutting its cloth according to the market — the secret of successful Lebanese traders: give them what they want. As a result, some of the highlights of Lebanese cooking are absent. There are no chicken wings, kibbee or fish. This might be because the chicken wing is still very eastern and hasn’t yet found a firm place among western tastes. We in the west tend to go for the chicken breast which is easy to eat, there’s always lots of it and it has no bits in it. It’s also bland and dry.
Chicken wings are harder work but the meat retrieved from within the small and intricate bones is vastly superior in flavour. The Lebanese way with wings, marinated and spiced up with pepper and baked or roasted until irresistibly dark brown, is normally a staple in Lebanese restaurants and it was sorely disappointing not to have them here.
Kibbee, made from raw ground lamb, and not unlike steak tartare, is prepared with spices and herbs to be eaten like a dip with pocket bread. In fairness, the absence of kibbee was explained as a health and safety issue. This was a good one as my companion happened to be a Belfast City councillor.
The place is quick turn-over and the absence of fish may be more an indication that Byblos doesn’t think we are ready yet for the Middle Eastern approach to fast seafood. Quick turn-over it may be, yet there’s no sense of being rushed here. For all its lack of obvious, visual charms, the mood and ambience is remarkably relaxed.
There is no licence and the Byblos policy of no corkage fee is very welcome, particularly when Wine World is across the street. Mind you, Wine World is for emergencies only because you’ll be hard pressed to find anything interesting on the shelves. Having said that, the tiny offie does stock quarter bottles of Chilean wine that could be just the job for Byblos at lunchtime. I looked in vain for a Chateau Musar but a decent Rioja for £7 was just the job.
A £30 mezze (plenty for two) of chicken, lamb and beef skewers on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes came with a generous bowl of fresh hummus and plenty of light, fluffy rice. Two ramekins of a yoghurt-based raita and a red, mild chilli sauce provided more flavours and variety. The chunks of chicken sharing the skewer with big bits of pepper and onion were fabulously savoury. Having been marinated in the garlic, chilli, lemon and tomato mix, the chicken was tender and juicy, a remarkable feat when you consider how close to under cooking you have to go to get this right — any longer and the chicken starts to dry out and get tough. The beef and lamb kibbeh skewers were equally good but it was the dressed salad beneath that provided the real surprise. At first glance, the green stuff looked like that typical and pointless garnish fast food places reach for. In this case it was regular old shredded iceberg but with a luscious oil and vinegar dressing to remember it by.
Mint tea replaced desserts, although I went back next day to enjoy those hyper-sweet middle eastern treats including baklava, the heart-stopping, flakey filo pastry packed with syrups, honey, nuts and butter.
Byblos is authentic and while the canny owner is adapting to local tastes, he should step away from his millennial commerce and trade heritage just for a moment and reach for those chicken wings he thinks might not work here. He might be surprised by the positive reaction.
Meshwi for 2 £30
Mint tea X 2 £4