There was a garnish on a few of the desserts at Byblos earlier this month that I can't stop thinking about. It was soft white and wispy: a loose bundle of long, dry, superfine threads that tasted mild and half-sweet with a comforting pistachio undernote, that melted indelibly into taste memory the second you put them in your mouth.
"It's Persian cotton candy," a server said.
The four of us around the table that night sighed as we ate it, but didn't otherwise get carried away. There was too much else to be excited about: refreshing pomegranate sorbet in a little dish that had been hand-painted red and ivory white; an apricot ice cream with the faintest hint of sherry. We had a pistachio and yogurt cake, also, with a fragrant hit of orange blossom, with rose petals strewn around it, and a chocolate semifreddo that had been snowed under crunchy-sweet baklava crumbs.
The next time I ate there, a week later, that garnish turned up again, and now I had to know what it really was. Iranians call it pashmak and the Turks call pismaniye; in China a similar sweet is called dragon's beard; there's a fairly common Indian variant too.
While it's similar to cotton candy, pashmak is made by hand, stretched and doubled, stretched and doubled over and over while being dipped into sesame flour or corn starch and icing sugar; it is meticulously worked until the threads are nearly as fine as silk. (Pashmak also figures into one of the signature desserts of Daniel Boulud pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira.)
That garnish was a fine window into the mission at Byblos, a lavish new spot from the restaurateurs Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth. Set over two gorgeously decorated storeys in a building on Duncan Street, just north of the Princess of Wales Theatre, the two-month old restaurant is all about the details. Like that little garnish, they find a way of standing out.
Byblos's theme is the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard, roughly: Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and though it isn't precisely Mediterranean, Iran, with a little bit of Morocco thrown in. It's what some trend-watchers call a "Middleterranean" place. The region's cooking is nearly inescapable around Toronto of late.
Dr. Laffa, the superb Iraqi-Israeli kosher street food spot in North, opened a second location farther south last year and doesn't seem to be finished expanding. Me Va Me, a beloved Russian-Israeli mini-chain from Thornhill, has opened across from the MuchMusic building downtown. The cooking at Me Va Me is cheap, fresh and excellent; the Jerusalem Mix laffa wrap, stuffed with chicken innards (hearts, livers) pickles and fresh vegetables, is one of the most extravagantly strange but delicious sandwiches in town.
The chef Anthony Rose recently opened Fat Pasha, a loosely Israeli-Ashkenazi spot in the former Indian Rice Factory on Dupont Street, and this past winter the 93 Harbord people launched District Oven near Dufferin Grove. Downtown at Queen and Spadina, a pair of food truck cooks inaugurated the bricks and mortar Rose City Kitchen a few months ago, where they're serving Middleterranean sandwiches on brick oven pita breads. (And also: falafel poutine). Even Dundas Street West is in on the action; Toronto's first humusseria, called S. Lefkowitz, opened there a couple of months ago.
Of all those places, however, Byblos is almost certain to be the most polished. Mr. Khabouth and Mr. Harji have a way of producing hits; the two also run Weslodge and the terrific Patria, both on King Street West. This one is more personal than usual for Mr. Khabouth, who is from Lebanon; he has never run a Middle Eastern restaurant until now. And their kitchen seems to be in good hands. In Stuart Cameron, the executive chef behind the pair's three spots, they've found a meticulous researcher who's adept at getting foreign flavours right.
The best way to eat here is with a group of friends who aren't afraid of sharing. Begin with some baked green olives dressed in harissa and a little bowl of marcona almonds. Have a plate of the roasted red beets with the house labneh and some Iranian barbari bread. The labneh is thick, rich, decadently tangy-sweet, cultured in Byblos's kitchen. The barbari bread, soft and golden brown and properly wavy, is baked each morning in a wood-fired oven and tastes that way; it's scattered with the restaurant's own za'atar spice blend.
The octopus is excellent: it's cut into rounds and set over a Turkish salad: tomatoes, cucumber, mint, chiles, superb olive oil and pomegranate seeds. They do a very good shakshouka here also, that classic Middle Eastern and North African dish of bubbling spiced tomato sauce with eggs. Here it comes in a small cast iron pan with a duck egg cracked into it. It would be plain wrong to eat at Byblos without ordering at least one.
Byblos's kitchen is run by chef de cuisine Jennifer Nickle. She is a serious talent; the seasonings here are complex but bang on and many of the cooking techniques used are difficult to nail. Her kitchen does a terrific dish of deep fried eggplant sauced with spicy tomato sauce and served with crepe-thin slices of basturma, a Turkish-style air-cured beef. They do deep-fried kibbeh, also: torpedo shaped balls of spiced meat, dried figs and bulghur, but with duck confit instead of the more typical lamb or beef. The kibbeh is also a must.
Much is made as well of Byblos's rice dishes; they're cooked to order and presented, with a waft of fragrant steam, in dark, lidded pots. There's a classic mejadra of basmati and lentils spiced with turmeric and cinnamon and strewn with fried shallots, and another rice dish that combines preserved lemons and wild B.C. shrimp. They're served with ceremony, beautiful to look at. The one I tried, however, tasted too dry and too sweet; the balance from the barberries that were said to be inside it never shone through.
One other fault, a 2-pound, $65 roast lamb sharing dish – a towering hunk of dark-roasted meat set on a silver platter. It came with an array of pickles and chiles, with the garlic sauce called toum and soft, fresh-made lavash bread; build your own shawarmas, sort of. It looked and smelled incredible.
It had been slow-cooked for 14 hours, our server told us. Which was much too much cooking, as it happens. The lamb was dry inside.
Far better to order the dry aged rib-eye, a much more impressive sharing dish that came gorgeously medium rare, under a pat of za'atar-spiced butter, over soft, smoky eggplant stirred with cream. Or the daily fish, grilled snapper when I had it, cooked beautifully and served whole with grilled lemons. Get the roasted carrots, tossed with grape molasses and za'atar, on the side.
As for dessert, restraint would be a tragedy here. Have a Turkish coffee with it; it's the real deal, with grounds at the bottom, poured from brass cezve pots. And be sure not to leave without trying some of that Persian cotton candy. You won't forget it any time soon.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of people's minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.