Escaping the lunch rut

Sep 14, 2005 at 12:00 am

It’s not startling that Byblos Café sells 250 to 400 lunches every weekday. Its site near Wayne State and its bargain prices of $3.75-$5 for wraps and sandwiches would explain that. But it is surprising that it’s been a long time since a restaurant has been able to establish itself, at this prime location on Palmer, as a mainstay of the neighborhood. Perhaps Byblos is on its way.

Its immediate predecessor was Harmonie Garden Café, a Syrian-owned restaurant that experimented disastrously with serving a different cuisine every night of the week, including soul and Indian (if it’s Wednesday, this mess must be Italian).

Earlier, grim-faced servers were a downer at the aggressively vegetarian Cosmic Cafe. I never knew whether the Cosmic’s long-faced waitstaff felt that gloom was the proper ambience for their food, or whether they were just worried about finals.

When Brian (né Bourhan) Ahmad opened Byblos last October, he established a Lebanese menu and added some Middle Eastern-inspired dishes of his own devising, among them the standout “fala lamb pita” wrap.

To make it, he mixes ground lamb with falafel — itself a mixture of chickpeas, onion, garlic and spices — grills the patty, and stuffs it in a pita with lettuce, tomato, pickles and tahini. It’s tangy and huge, and the contrast between the warm falafel-lamb mix and the cool lettuce and tomato adds to the sensation. At $4, this is a find.

Ahmad, who cooked in France for 10 years before coming to this country, does the same thing with ground chicken instead of lamb. He goes on to mix and match various Middle Eastern dishes to make the innards of a total of 16 pita wraps, many of them toasted: hummus and baba ghanoug, hummus and fatoush, and lamb and chicken shawarma are just a few

Another wrap he claims credit for inventing is the “moujadara spinach melt,” which combines moujadara (a lentil pilaf that you may have seen spelled mjadra), barely cooked spinach leaves, tahini — and Swiss cheese.

The lentils in this dish are still a little crunchy, and the onions add sweetness to the moujadara. The spinach combines the best qualities of raw and cooked, and the cheese is a surprising bonus that adds creaminess.

Ahmad will also put falafel on a hamburger bun with hummus and tahini, if desired. Beats most veggie-burgers hands down.

Carried over from Harmonie Garden is an entrée called Chicken Sultan. In those days it incorporated ranch dressing. The better Byblos version starts with rice, adds a layer of grilled chicken breast, lays on that same just-barely-limp spinach, and tops it with Swiss cheese and tahini. A $10 order would serve three. It’s not traditional, but it is delicious, and Ahmad says he’s catering 150 servings of it for a wedding, which will challenge his ability to get the spinach just right.

It’s hard to do justice to a menu with 90 dishes, not counting drinks, breakfast or dessert. Byblos shares with its predecessor a tendency to experiment with other cuisines, though now those anomalous dishes are offered all the time. Quesadillas, Cajun salmon, fettucine Alfredo, fish and chips, Greek salad, raita, chicken wings and a BLT are all on the menu.

Having learned my lesson, I didn’t try them, given that there are at least 35 Middle Eastern possibilities to try first, and that’s before you even start combining them as Ahmad is wont to do. One non-Middle-Eastern dish I did try, a vegetarian chili, was lousy, as sweet as ketchup.

With the exception of Chicken Sultan, I found Byblos’ entrées less good than those inventive wraps. Lamb with artichokes is a great idea, but the lamb mustn’t be tough. Lamb shawarma, which any Middle Eastern restaurant should have down cold, was dry. An off night, or the rule? And the spinach pies’ sumac-infused filling was very good, but they needed more of it. Byblos’ servings are ordinarily huge, and four little understuffed pies for $5.50 was no bargain.

Rice pudding was also disappointing, with a taste like perfume and the consistency of library paste. Crème caramel is available when Ahmad is on hand to make it himself, but other desserts are brought in.

Better was a huge bowl of lentil soup, lovely gold with flecks of carrot, spiced just right. And from the grill, arayes kafta is almost too juicy. This is pita stuffed with lamb kafta, tomatoes and almonds (other restaurants use pine nuts, which are better), then grilled. I’ve liked this better when the kafta was loose rather than formed into a patty.

Given what Brian Ahmad does with spinach in other dishes, I’d be tempted to try “Brian’s Salad,” a mix of cukes, tomatoes, spinach, onions and Asiago; or “Sharif Spinach Salad,” which combines marinated spinach with grilled onions and moujadara.

If Wayne students and staff are like most people, they keep ordering the same favorites at Byblos, day after day. If they decided to branch out, they could go more than a semester without repeating. They’d discover whether it’s possible to serve Indian, Mexican, Cajun, English, Lebanese, American, Italian and Japanese dishes (yep, there’s an Asian vegetable stir-fry with teriyaki sauce), and do them well.

I wish them luck, and I’m sticking with the wraps.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].