There is an eccentric quality to the 4-month-old Byblos that transcends both its Middle Eastern menu and location in South Beach.
We opened the front door of the vintage Shorecrest Hotel and were greeted by a hostess and a man in a wonderfully striped suit. We followed him through a dining room that's decorated — within inches of kitsch — as an homage to the chic 1970s. The backs and seats of tubular, steel-armed chairs are covered in bright-orange, geometric fabric. Pops of turquoise on a sofa and curtains and oversize, white ceramic lamps make Byblos look more vintage Palm Beach than insipid South Beach, thanks to designer Alessandro Munge.
The man in stripes guided us to a staircase that we took to the second floor dining room, which exudes a different kind of drama. High-ceilinged with herringbone wooden floors and gold banquettes, the room draws your eyes to the large, Egyptian-themed folding screens that grace the walls.
It all adds up to an original, resort-style elegance, with visual references that will be familiar to anyone who's traveled in the "eastern Mediterranean," which is where Byblos gets its inspiration. Its owners are Canadians Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji, who opened their first Byblos last year in Toronto, following up on earlier successes at Patria, where the specialty is Spanish, and Weslodge Saloon, with its sophisticated gastropub menu.
Executive chef Stuart Cameron is like a culinary secretary of state. Most of us know something about Middle Eastern food, but Cameron isn't so much re-creating the dishes of an ancient tradition as he is using its ingredients and flavors as a stepping stone to sophistication.
Cameron has created a big sharing menu with dishes brought to the table like tiny jewels on intricate serving pieces, the better to show off the labor-intensive work of Cameron and his Miami chef de cuisine, Nelson J. Fernandez.
I love baked lamb kibbeh. Here, it's made with duck ($15) and incorporates dried fig, tahini and a drizzle of date molasses. Eggplant kibbeh ($14) is an eggplant-filled zucchini flower dipped in chickpea batter and served with housemade yogurt. It is as delicate as the duck kibbeh is bold. Turkish-style manti dumplings ($13) are folded into little, paper-hat-shaped purses filled with smoky eggplant and served with yogurt sauce and molasses. They are delicious.
But so are simple-roasted beets ($14), served in a puddle of the strained yogurt known as labneh with pistachio and caraway. Lamb ribs ($18) are tender from being cooked sous vide. They're lightly flour-coated and then fried until crispy. Each rib seems to be hand-dusted with the mixture of herbs, nuts and spices called dukkah. Each bone then gets a dot of red chili schug. Shakshouka ($13), that current menu darling, is done here with duck egg in tomato sauce and garlicky toum. The tomato sauce ought to be spicier.
I've eaten dozens of fattoush salads, but the Byblos version ($15) borders on molecular. It's so tiny that it's difficult to taste each element: heirloom tomato, cucumber and the housemade cheese known as shanklish. I'm used to much heartier versions.
Byblos makes it own bread, wood-fired pide, in four versions: creamed spinach ($14), mushroom ($14), black truffle ($24) and another delicious creation with sujuk sausage, feta and zaatar. Rice dishes tend toward traditional: Mejadra with lentils and fried shallots ($19) and Sweet Jeweled with carrot, saffron, barberries and almonds. Hand rolled couscous can be had with brown butter, saffron and herbs ($8) or in an amazing combination with creamed collard greens and halloumi cheese.
There are several large shareable dishes including an amazing yogurt baked fluke ($27), with toasted bread crumbs, walnuts and brown butter. Order this dish. The 18-ounce, 40-day dry-aged prime rib-eye ($68) is also outstanding, served with zaatar butter and creamy eggplant. These aren't flavors normally associated with beef, but they work beautifully.
Desserts are equally awe-inspiring, from a simple brik pastry cigar ($10) with fig crème and pickled Bing cherries to pizzelle ($13) with baklava ice cream, salted caramel and couscous praline.
Even cocktails are intriguing at Byblos. They do something called cold tea service, a boozy riff on the tea ritual I've shared with Turks, Lebanese and Chaldeans. Served on intricate trays, cups are filled with one of four variations. We had Edgeware Road ($35 for two/$70 for four), with Moroccan mint, lemongrass, lime and gin. It's pretty theatrical. I'd rather have a regular cocktail.
Much of what's served at Byblos calls for a well-informed service team, and lead servers are the best combination of friendly and efficient. Food runners, however, need to make a point of making themselves heard. Many of the dishes need an explanation.
Don't ask too many questions, however, because the food is mostly exquisite. At the end of our meal, the stripe-suited man was back to thank us for coming. We're glad we did.
1545 Collins Ave., The Royal Palm South Beach, Miami Beach
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Hours: Dinner nightly
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $15 valet