By Mary D. Scourtes
A Palma Ceia couple walking their dog stumbled upon Byblos Café. They never knew this was a Lebanese restaurant tucked behind a busy intersection of MacDill Ave. and Bay to Bay Blvd. They dropped the dog off, changed and returned for dinner the same evening.
“They don’t see us. They can’t find us. It just breaks our heart,’’ says Byblos general manager Aida Zischka about being hidden in the shadow of the Selmon Expressway. That’s why the café is putting up a more prominent entrance and adding more seating to accommodate potential customers.
“If they come in, they’ll love us,’’ boasts Aida. “We have healthy, clean food and a good looking staff,’’ she says.
Soon, they’ll offer a breakfast menu on the weekends (their belly dancer would be a more powerful eye opener than a morning java.)
Hard to believe there are those who don’t know about this happening café. Just the volume of the music when the belly dancers begin gyrating would be enough of a hook to draw customers a mile or two away. Byblos’ low tables, mood lighting, hookahs and Lebanese tapestries make diners feel more Beirut than Bay to Bay.
The café, which is named for the ancient city of Phoenicia, was opened 11 years ago by two LSU graduates, brothers Roger and Ziad Estephan. Through the years, the seating and menu have expanded and evolved. Everything is prepared on the premises, with no MSG added.
Sinbad would set sail for Byblos’ $23 mezza, purportedly for two, but maybe enough for a small oasis. It starts with the “national salad” of Lebanon: tabbouleh, which is mostly fresh parsley and tomatoes, with spare amounts of cracked Bulgur wheat and just the right amount of mint and lemon juice. There are also tasty fried croquettes, kebbeh, which are laced with pine nuts, cracked wheat and ground beef. Rice, tomatoes and parsley-stuffed dolma, rolled into grape leaf-lipstick-sized bundles, come out moist from being slow baked. Squatty garbanzo bean falafel, authentic patties with garlic, onions, and cilantro, retain their crunch.
The pita’s wholesome flavor is in cahoots with three dips. The contrast of charbroiled eggplant with lemon, sesame seed paste and garlic, makes a smoky baba ghanuj. There is also a glistening bowl of chick pea hummus, blended with lemon juice, tahini paste and garlic. Completing the trio is a billowy bowl of strained yogurt labneh, which unites nicely with olive oil, garlic and mint. You can’t get a better taste of the place than with this hearty appetizer of seven dishes.
One extra appetizer that we ordered didn’t strike any positive notes. Shanklish is a bitter goat cheese mixture that comes out with too strong, chopped onions and tomatoes.
Our entrées worked, however. Thin slices of grilled, spiced beef and lamb on the gyro platter may sound lunch-like but it was a filling dinner, accompanied by hummus, a green salad and tahini sauce. Herby ground beef kebabs are a tasty find. Grilled salmon, marinated in a tomato-based dressing with garlic, lemon juice and oil, brings out its sweetness and moisture. A tender chicken curry was just right and the depth of curry didn’t overpower the dish.
With the hearty dinners, it’s little wonder one doesn’t have room for dessert. Baklava, with pine nuts, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts and cashews, crosses all taste bud boundaries. Namoura, made from semolina and coconut, is splashed with rose and orange waters. Ismalaih, with ricotta cheese and phyllo, sports an intriguing pistachio syrup topping.
If your sense of flavor adventure has been piqued, you may want to stop by the market that stocks spices, almonds, coffee and other Lebanese dry goods.
Byblos Café Mediterranean Cuisine & International Market
Find it: 2832 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa FL
Pay for it: AE, Discover, MC, V
Hours: Mon – Thurs., 11 am to 10 pm, Fri and Sat: 11 am to 11 pm, Sun. 3 to 9 pm
Reach them: (813) 805-7977