Here’s a suggestion for the forlorn and neglected vegetarian community in Baltimore: if you want to eat out and eat well, go Lebanese.
Byblos, at 1033 Light Street, is a Lebanese restaurant where even the poor neglected vegan community can eat heartily and well. There are meat dishes on the menu as well, so mixed groups of vegetarians and carnivores can dine happily.
The service, from proprietors Sami and Hala Tabet, is friendly and attentive, and both are willing to explain the foods—think Lebanese Cuisine 101—and suggest a dish for you.
The room is homey and warm. The paintings on the wall, of pleasant family scenes and scenery, are by Sami Tabet. The furniture is wrought-iron and repurposed—the table at which we sat was an old treadle sewing machine base with a nifty woven rattan top. The room, like the Tabets, is the very opposite of formal, and the dishes are just as warm and friendly as the hosts.
We know nothing at all about Lebanese cuisine, so we had a lengthy consultation with Hala. We did a little meat and a little vegan, and the vegan was as tasty and satisfying as the meat dish, and that is rare.
“When we opened we noticed lots of vegetarian customers, so I made some dishes for them,” says Hala.
Mary Helen tried the Sheikh El-Mehsheh Combo platter ($10.95). It’s eggplant, layered with ground beef that has been browned with onions and pine nuts. The beef is fragrant with cumin and another, sweet spice—allspice? Cinnamon? and is absolutely delicious. The eggplant was nested in some herbed and spiced rice. For someone who dislikes the usual blandness of rice, this is a treat.
The platter comes with a generous portion of silky-smooth hummus, the dip made from chickpeas and tahini, a thick sauce made from toasted sesame seeds and oil. The hummus is rich and nutty and laced with lemon and garlic. We eagerly sopped that up, tearing pieces from a couple of homemade pita breads.
The other side was fattoush, a chopped salad made from tomato, cucumber, onion and herbs seasoned with a mild vinegar pickle. It was delicious and refreshing and a nice contrast to the creamy hummus.
I went vegan. The veggie kebbeh ($7.25) was a delicately flavored layered concoction of spinach and chickpeas between layers of bulgur wheat that have been pressed into a sheet.
Bulgur wheat is interesting stuff—cracked wheat berries that have been roasted and parcooked. The texture is a little like rice
I also tried the Snoubra, a dish that Hala says she invented for the vegans—bulgur wheat, this time piled loosely like rice, with potatoes, onions, pine nuts and soft roasted red pepper. It’s spiced with cumin and cilantro and a whiff of cayenne—not enough for a chili head but certainly enough for me. The dish was delicious and smoky and fragrant. Yum—vegans rejoice!
Lunch was very tasty indeed, but dessert was a special treat. No matter what you order you must order Turkish coffees ($1.75) with it. Sami makes a special ceremony of pouring the deep black coffee into the elegant demitasses. You let it cool a little bit and sip the lovely cardamom-laced coffee slowly.
With it we tried nammoura ($2.75), a sweet cake soaked with syrup and topped with toasted coconut. The cake was coarse, like good cornbread, and very satisfying.
We also tried a walnut maamoul ($2.50)—it’s chopped walnut, sugar, honey and spices encased in a sturdy dough and baked. Any of Byblos’ desserts would make a delicious afternoon tea—but whatever you do, order the Turkish coffee.
If you have never tried Lebanese food, try Byblos. Sami and Hala are more than glad to introduce you to the cuisine they love and prepare so well. If you are well familiar with Lebanese food, try Byblos. The dishes are authentic and prepared with care. Our lunch, including tax, came to $37.19.
Byblos, 1033 Light Street, is open Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. and Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. There is no liquor license, but customers are welcome to bring their own.
by Jacqueline Watts