A Sense of Hummus
A casual, affordable Middle Eastern restaurant is a welcome addition to Federal Hill
When folks talk about the kinds of restaurants the city's dining scene needs more of, not many mention Middle Eastern. Granted, Baltimore has Lebanese Taverna and Baba's Mediterranean Kitchen, to name two good choices. Patrons of these establishments know that on hot summer days, there's something undeniably satisfying in a forkful of tabbouleh laced with mint or a dollop of creamy baba ghanouj teeming with garlic and scooped into a pita. I, for one, am always happy to see another kitchen offering falafel or fattoush or baklava, especially when it's warmly staffed and modestly unassuming. Federal Hill's Byblos is all that.
Open just under three months at the time of our visit, Byblos is the work of Sami and Hala Tabet, who do the cooking and the serving, the ringing up and the clearing up. The compact menu is hand-lettered on a white board above the coffee apparatus behind the counter. All the food in Byblos' cold case is identified by hand-lettered signs too. There are substantial pies filled with spinach or brushed with zaatar (a mixture of thyme, sesame, and sumac). There are wide trays of creamy dips like baba ghanouj or hummus, tight rolls of grape leaves, and brownie-like slabs of vegetarian kibbeh.
This is not fancy dining. With its soda cooler humming beneath the piped in melodies of French pop music and the wrought iron patio furniture that fills a narrow dining area beyond the cash register, Byblos is a little less polished than other spots in town. It's homey, rather than chic, and the food is like that too.
You walk to the counter, point or ask for what you want, and in a matter of minutes, your table is brimming with a series of Styrofoam plates, plastic containers, and utensils Hala has brought to you. You might begin with the pies--the fragrant purple-black zaatar smeared on a chewy crust ($1.50) or lahma bi ajeen ($2), savory shredded meat mixed with onions and tomato and cradled in crust as thin as a tortilla. Alas, this evening Hala had sold out of the cheese pies (as well as snoubra, a dish made of bulgur, red pepper, potato, and pine nuts).
Still, there is plenty more to fill you, like fat discs of falafel ($7.95 for the combination platter), lighter and more cake-like than most renditions. Or chicken shawarma ($8.95 for the combination platter), which looks naked and unattractive shredded in a small pile, but tastes much better, especially when doused with toum, a pungent, creamy garlic sauce. Ordered as a combination platter, both meals arrived with ample baskets of thin pita and two salads, including a choice of hummus, minty tabbouleh, or fattoush, the latter which seemed more like an American version of salad than the traditional pita and vegetable combination.
Orders of both moussaka ($5.95) and kibbeh ($6.95) also produced versions different from my other experiences of these dishes. Rather than being a hot combination of melting cheese, tomato sauce, and layered eggplant, Byblos' moussaka is a cold chunky salad of eggplant, chickpeas, tomatoes, and onion. It's tasty, but those with their heart set on the layered dish will be puzzled. Byblos serves both meat and vegetarian versions of kibbeh, and if you're more accustomed to a meat version with fragrant and savory spicing, you may find Byblos' kibbeh a little bland, as I did.
Byblos' desserts, however, dissolve any disappointments in a pool of sweetness. I'm a sucker for baklava ($2.50), and here it is conventional, drenched in honey, packed full of nuts and cinnamon, just perfect. And unless you have a penchant for the impenetrable crust of maamoul cookies ($2), skip them in favor of a slice of nammoura ($2), an ultra-moist, coconut-rich semolina cake.
Needless to say, a meal at Byblos is inexpensive. Four of us tallied up a bill of $44 and left the table more than satisfied. Because if I hadn't, I would have ordered a taste of the milder, tomato-soup red country-style hummus I'd somehow missed when ordering the first time. I'll get it next time though. That and a cheese pie.