A quick trip to a land of sunshine and bright Mediterranean tastes
Cafe Byblos chef/owner Sam Khechen tempts customers with kibbi aras and a substantial vegetarian platter. See also: In the kitchen at Cafe Byblos
If Denver were lucky enough to get a nor'easter — one of those storms that dumps rain for so many hours, you're sure the sky has never been anything other than dishwater gray — I know just what I'd do. Not stay inside, though I gave away my long raincoat years ago, and who knows where the umbrellas are stashed. No, I'd put the windshield wipers to good use and drive to Cafe Byblos, a Mediterranean restaurant with walls the color of sky and sunshine, and blue mosaic tiles that glint like light dancing on waves.
See also: In the kitchen at Cafe Byblos
There's warming comfort food to be had at this cheerful, big-windowed space straddling the intersection of residential and commercial a few blocks east of Alamo Placita Park — not of the thick stew and root vegetable variety, but creamy dips and pita, seven-spice blends, marinated meats and lemon-spiked sauces. This is food that puts you on a plane to a place far away, a land of sandals and shorts. The menu might resemble that of a couple of Middle Eastern restaurants flanking South Colorado Boulevard — Byblos chef/owner Sam Khechen once owned Marrakech Grill, and one of his siblings, who also cooks at Byblos, previously owned House of Kabob — but those tired spaces don't beckon on a winter's day the way that Cafe Byblos does.
Given its arrival on the scene just last fall and its out-of-the-way location, the restaurant is likely to be half empty when you walk through the doors. Don't let this scare you. Just take a seat — preferably in the front dining room, as servers don't always pay as much attention to the back — and get down to business, negotiating which small plates will begin your meal. Patatas bravas? Assorted olives? Hummus? You'll long for a nonexistent appetizer-sized combo plate to make the decision easier. You'll also long for a glass of pinot grigio, now that you're in the mood for summer, but you won't get that, either, since the owners haven't yet applied for a liquor license.
Try as I might, I can't begin a meal here without a bowl of hummus, its dimple brimming with olive oil, chopped tomatoes and minced parsley. Garlic does not overpower, nor does lemon, and while the somewhat dried-out pita halves may not entice you to nibble them plain, they easily fulfill their role as vehicles for the smooth chickpea dip, which will be gone before you know it. At lunch you might continue with a big salad, perhaps the Greek, with enough feta, tomatoes, kalamata olives and cucumbers (halved and seeded to rid them of moisture) to cover the ample portion of crisp romaine. For an even heartier option, add long, thin slices of kosher gyros. Or you might opt for another appetizer plate for yourself — not the table — and call it a meal.
Skip the thick slices of fried eggplant, which soak up so much oil they drip when pinched. (No loss: Who'd want eggplant chips as an entree stand-in anyway?) Better is the soupy bowl of fava beans. Served warm, the grayish-green beans mash easily against your fork or the pita you'll use to soak up the garlicky, lemony (and sometimes overly oily) marinade. And though they sound odd, the kibbi aras — akin to fried, stuffed meatballs with a shell of cracked wheat and lamb and a lamb-walnut filling — are delicious.
Khechen, who owns Byblos with his wife, Kaya Khajeaian, started working at his family's restaurants 25 years ago, shortly after his move from Lebanon to the United States. His experience is evident in the ever-popular lamb, beef and chicken kabobs, which can be ordered as a sandwich accompanied by fries, rice or a simple house salad, or on skewers interspersed with slices of onions and green peppers, plus a mound of saffron-scented rice and a charred tomato. All the meats are marinated long enough so that the flavors of cumin, coriander and seven-spice powder come through along with the smoky remnants from the grill. Too heavily spiced, however, are the chicken kafta (grilled balls of ground chicken), which our group didn't finish one night.
Keep in mind that the kitchen cuts the kabobs on the large side, which can make for an awkward mouthful in a sandwich. Avoid this indelicacy by ordering the chicken shawarma, moist slivers of formerly all-white meat now hued a pale peach from a marinade spiked with orange, paprika and cayenne. Falafel, too, is shaped on the large side, making for a soft spot in the middle where the spiced blend of fava beans and chickpeas isn't surrounded by crisp shell. This is less of an issue when tucked inside a pita sandwich than when eaten whole on the vegetarian combo platter.
Speaking of which, this is the platter you wish you could've started with — only in miniature, so as not to spoil the rest of your meal. Shaped like an edible solar system, the combo platter features numerous vegetarian dishes spinning out from a central sphere of basmati rice: the silky eggplant purée called baba ghanouj, its smoky flavor here undiluted by yogurt; tabbouleh so heavy on lemon and parsley you'll get a week's worth of vitamin C; rice-stuffed grape leaves; hummus; a few discs of falafel; and a flaky triangle stuffed with warm spinach and feta. Appreciate the plate for all its beauty, then get busy dragging your fork from one mound to the next: falafel into hummus, hummus into tabbouleh. In this system, gravity doesn't prevent one planet from happily colliding with the next.
Given the lovely surroundings, you might expect Cafe Byblos to deliver a fine-dining experience. It doesn't — not yet, at least. On one occasion, a server was berated for not properly rolling silverware in paper napkins; on another, a heated phone call to a vendor was handled at the hostess station for all to hear. Tea lights remain unlit after night falls, and plating has more in common with South Colorado Boulevard than Larimer Street. You long for more variety, a fresh touch. But unless you're in the market for one of the bold canvases for sale on the walls (painted, incidentally, by Khechen's father-in-law, owner of Kashi Kari Gallery in Denver), innovation isn't the draw here. Instead, it's the promise of food that speaks of warmer climes, served in a cheerful location.
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