Calling Byblos a Mediterranean restaurant doesn’t do it justice. People hear Mediterranean, and they think Greek salads and gyros, of which Byblos serves neither.
For its cuisine, this South Beach newcomer attached to the Royal Palm hotel (1545 Collins Ave.) reaches across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Greece to the Middle East. And what the kitchen has come up with is some of the best and most exciting food anywhere in Miami right now.
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No dish underlines that sentiment like lamb ribs: slow-cooked until tender then blasted with heat, coated in an Egyptian spice-nut-and-seed blend called dukkah and topped with a drop of an Israeli hot sauce known as skhug. Like almost every dish at Byblos, the ribs strike our pleasure receptors with waves of soft-then-crunchy textures and spicy-then-sweet flavors.
The menu, too, is written in a way that conveys a sense of adventure, of exploring the unknown, coupled with familiar comforts. This is only a letdown when you’re in need of some direction — what’s toum … and sujuk? — and no one seems to be able to guide you. (Toum is an unbelievably good garlicky white sauce, like an eggless aioli, that originated in Egypt; sujuk is a dry beef sausage that tops a long Turkish-style pide bread at Byblos.)
The two-story space, formerly the seafood restaurant Catch, feels open and airy, with high ceilings, a kitchen station in the dining room for cold appetizers, and blue, gold and white accents throughout.
Save for a handful of plates marked as Large on the menu, most everything is appetizer-size, and two to three dishes a person is a good place to start.
Another good start: marcona almonds dusted with paprika and lime zest — the most addicting snack since the fried hominy at Michael’s Genuine.
Other mezze standouts include small red beets that are roasted to fork-tenderness, rolled in pistachio crumbles and served on impossibly thick and rich labneh (yogurt); and duck kibbeh. Unlike traditional kibbeh that are made of ground meat and onion inside shells of fried bulgur, Byblos’ version mixes ground duck into the bulgur shells, which are stuffed with shredded duck confit and figs. Plated with tahini and date molasses, it’s a super take on a classic.
The beets and other starters, like a fiery steak tartare cooled down by minced mint and a dollop of labneh, are served with thick sticks of Iranian barbari bread that’s hot and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Another section of the menu highlights several pide breads that have more of a chew and density than barbari. Our servers really wanted us to try the $22 version with black truffle and buffalo mozzarella, but we were more than content with our choices of Turkish sujuk with feta and za’atar ($14) and creamed spinach with dukkah and toum ($13).
Seafood dishes like fluke baked in a tangy yogurt sauce with walnuts and tender octopus perked up by preserved lemon go well with any of the restaurant’s sharable portions of rice.
Side dishes comprise the part of the menu that could use some spicing up: Cauliflower seared in duck fat didn’t have much of a sear or flavor either time I ordered it, and I also would have liked more of a hard roast on brussels sprouts that tasted bland even with pieces of halloumi cheese mixed in.
Wines and cocktails run the gamut from familiar to exotic, and an affable sommelier can help you along either path. He led us to a cabernet sauvignon-based red wine blend from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Full of anise and blackberries and light oak, the wine danced admirably with Byblos’ varied cuisine. Though when I got home and looked up the bottle’s retail price, I felt a sting from the 3.5-time markup I paid in the restaurant.
While Byblos’ kitchen — led by executive chef Stuart Cameron and chef de cuisine Nelson Fernandez — is firing on all cylinders after a July opening, the front side has some new-restaurant wrinkles to iron out.
A minor roof leak that drip-dropped on one of the guests on a weekday night had developed into a full-blown tear by a subsequent weekend visit; buckets and mops cordoned off the scene from an otherwise full dining room. Air conditioning that had crapped out earlier in Byblos’ run still doesn’t seem up to the task, and working in sweat-soaked shirts isn’t a good look for any restaurant staff.
After a server told us the braised leg of lamb was sold out, a manager swooped in to say they had one order left. We took it.
What arrived was a shoulder, not a leg. When we inquired about the discrepancy, a manager went to the kitchen and returned with the most ridiculous answer: “It’s a shoulder-leg,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward his arm-chest.
(We found out when the bill landed that the “market price” for this dish was $110; giving us a heads-up when ordering would have been the hospitable thing to do.)
Regardless, the lamb was lusciously rich, and its accompanying pickled vegetables, chiles, toum and sheets of lavash made for fun flavor experiments and sharing across the table.
Composed desserts are light and floral, like a yogurt mousse with orange blossom water and petals of edible flowers from Paradise Farms. I gravitated toward daily-changing housemade sorbets and ice creams at $4 a scoop; don’t miss the hibiscus-watermelon sorbet or pistachio ice cream.
There is so much going on in Byblos’ food that it’s not fair to simply call it a Mediterranean restaurant. It’s going to be a great restaurant.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor. On Twitter and Instagram: @EvanBenn.