Authentic Lebanese Dining in Flatiron – Review of Byblos

BY BETH KAISERMAN

80 Madison Ave. between 28th and 29th St.
Flatiron
(212) 687-0808/byblosny.com

Byblos

Tabbouleh

Byblos is an airy Lebanese restaurant, serving up the real deal in Lebanese cuisine with flavors that might make you dance. There’s plenty of room for that actually, and live music and dancing happens on Saturday nights.

 

Hot Yogurt Soup

Hot Yogurt Sauce

Grilled Meats

Grilled Meats

At a press dinner, we tasted mezze selections, Lebanese wine, kibbeh, grilled meats and tabbouleh. The silky hummus will make you question every other hummus you’ve ever tried. It’s not often you rave about something as simple as hummus, but this one is truly incredible, as is the baba ghannouj.

After delicious mezze, we were served kibbeh (spelled kibbee on Byblos’ menu) in a hot yogurt sauce. Upon reading the “hot yogurt sauce” part of the dish, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The kibbeh were moist and flavorful without being overpowering like others I’ve had. The yogurt sauce was delightful and unique, but certainly one of the heavier entree items. We tasted all of the kebabs, which were cooked perfectly and served with some nicely spiced peas. I already want to go back for grape leaves, fattoush and a whole grilled fish.

Lebanese food differs from other Middle Eastern foods in that it doesn’t use cumin and features more olive oil, owner Sonia Kachouh said. This mostly healthy cuisine is my favorite for a nice lunch outing. Luckily, Byblos is open for lunch and dinner every day. Happy hour from 5-7 offers $6 imported beers, Lebanese wines and mezze.

Byblos was in Murray Hill for twenty years and moved to Flatiron in 2012. The family-owned spot is great for nice but casual meals with bright, clean flavors. If you’re the kind of foodie who likes to impress people with authentic eats, check out Byblos.

Home of Manhattan’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich – Review of Sao Mai

BY ELENA MANCINI

203 First Ave.
East Village
(212) 358-8880 / Sao Mai 

East of the East Village bustle and trendiness, this family-run East Village Vietnamese restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese fare and the best Banh Mi Sandwiches on the Manhattan side of the East River.

Vegetarian Bahn Mi

Available in six varieties including pho, sliced pork, grilled chicken and vegetarian, these sandwiches make a quick, nutritious, flavor-packed meal that’s easy on the wallet (priced between $6-$7). The Bahn Mi are prepared on baguettes are consistently fresh and crusty with a soft and chewy middle. Independent of the filling you choose, the kitchen always strikes the right balance between bread and ingredients. Their vegetarian Bahn Mi is among my favorite comfort-food lunches. Prepared on two warm halves of choice baguette, they’re stuffed with toothsome strands of sauteed bok choy, straw mushrooms, seedless cucumbers, shredded carrot and abundant swaths of cilantro, the sandwiches and seasoned with lemongrass,  sriracha mayonnaise, that provides a subtle and reverberating pitch of complex heat. In sum, it’s a light, filling lunch that delivers high-flavor rewards.

Pho’ Sao Mai

Front: Summer Rolls; Far: Spring Rolls

Lest one think Sao Mi is just about Bahn Mi, flavor mavens and fans of traditional Vietnamese fare will find other  sections of its menu will prove well worth exploring. The Pho Sao Mai will not disappoint. A flavorful broth, rich in tender strips of brisket, sprouts, rice noodles and a medley of herbs will consistently hit the spot. Adding appeal to  Sao Mi’s attractions is its steal of a lunch menu, which includes the choice of an appetizer, entree and a soft drink, all for $10. Sweetening things further,  both the Bahn Mi and the Pho are included in this deal!

Ga Gary – Chicken Curry

With a wide variety of vegetarian options on its menu, Sao Mai is also a smart choice for a low-key dinner that guarantees value, quality and flavor. Pity that wait staff has not yet mastered the walk-in dinner crowd on weekends. During these times, the  friendly service  can turn into a source of frustration for those who do not suffer extended waits and uneven food delivery times lightly.

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Fare to Please Both Bubbeh and Foodie – Review of Balaboosta

BY CRAIG CAVALLO

Photo by Craig Cavallo

When you eat at a restaurant that serves foreign fare, the food should act as a portal.  It should open doors that warp space and time and take you on a tour of the country’s cuisine.  The success of the journey is entirely up to the chef, and in the case of Balaboosta, Einat Admony proves to be a wonderful tour guide.  We were introduced to her culinary stylings in 2005, when Taim was opened in the West Village out of a longing for the street food of Tel Aviv.  Balaboosta results from a desire to serve these authentic Middle Eastern flavors in a more formal setting.  The restaurant will have its second birthday this year, though something tells me it’s going to skip the terrible two’s.

Balaboosta is a Yiddish word that means “perfect housewife” and the atmosphere is ripe with these sentiments.  It feels as if you’ve walked into the chef’s apartment.  A picture of her aunt is the first thing you see, and the only thing to dress the white brick wall it hangs on.  It’s intentionally lit and hints at the significance of tradition and heritage that comes forth in the cuisine.

The beverage program dances a sensual tango around the fact that they don’t have a full liquor license.  Wine based cocktails and wines by the glass prove to be excellent distractions from the long waits.  There is a white on offer from Rueda, Spain.  It is here, planted at high elevations, that the acidic verdejo grape thrives.  It is blended with a small amount of sauvignon blanc and the result is a very aromatic, bright, and mineral driven wine.  Four thousand miles away from home it shines in the glass and makes for an utterly delightful way to start an evening.

The menu is predominantly Middle Eastern but shows influences from neighboring Mediterranean countries, particularly among the small plates.  Patatas bravas ($7), a staple in Spanish tapas, are served beneath a dusting of zaatar and accompanied with a garlic aioli.  Crispy cauliflower ($10) comes to us via the coastal city of Palermo in Sicily and is balanced here with currants, pine nuts, and lemon.  Harissa oil, inspired by the North African chili sauce, adds a bright streak to the fried olives ($7) that come piled above organic labneh.  The golden quinoa salad ($7) is a reflection of Balaboosta’s roots and is the perfect harmony of all five basic tastes.  It is incredibly light and refreshing and the addition of fried shallots adds a crunch that makes the palate dance the hora.

There is a genuine care behind this cooking, an effort put forth to make Balaboosta unique.  Many restaurants feature fish roe, even fish roe sauce, though to my knowledge, no restaurant has made a wasabi infused flying fish roe and used it to dress shrimp that have been wrapped in delicate strands of phyllo dough before a quick visit to the fryer.  And when grilled lamb chops ($28) come to table tucked under a blanket of Persian lime sauce you can only hope it’s going to be as good as it looks.  It is.  The acid in the limes is the Jeremy Lin assist to Tyson Chandlers rich, charred lamb.  It’s good.  Israeli good.

Perhaps the brick wall was painted white so as to act neutral, to better allow the bright food to color the room.  Maybe it’s a carryover from Israeli decor, where interiors are painted white to help cool down the rooms from the hot, Mediterranean climate.  Whatever the case, I’m sure it was intentional.  Nothing seems to be done randomly here.  The staff is kind and precise.  They do everything to make you feel as if you were in their home aside from saying, “Welcome to our home.”  Balaboosta is a restaurant that demands a return visit with elegant subtlety.  The menu showcases a modern take on Middle Eastern food that is deeply rooted in tradition.  The only thing it lacks is a bad choice.

Balaboosta on Urbanspoon

Hospitality and comfort meet the Upper West Side via Druze cuisine – Review of Gazala’s

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Gazala’s
380 Columbus Avenue
Upper West Side
(212) 873-8880/gazalaplace.com

Gazala's Interior

Although the small Druze village in Northern Israel where Chef Gazala Halabi grew up is a far cry from the Upper West Side, she makes it her own via her restaurant, Gazala’s.
I had the pleasure of dining at Gazala’s, where I felt as if I were in Ms. Halabi’s own home.  
The warm and courteous wait staff made my guest and I feel comfortable in the brick and burgundy colored space, where interesting mosaics covered the walls and small chandeliers accented the high ceilings.

Gazala’s wasn’t very crowded for a Wednesday night, especially when a brief downpour washed away any sign of life dining outside on the small front patio.  Noticing those who periodically came in to Gazala’s, I knew right away that they were past patrons, coming back for more of the transporting food I was about to consume.

Meze Platter at Gazala’s

We started with the Gazala Platter ($33) – a meze platter highlighting most of Gazala’s hot and cold meze offerings.  The taboule and lebanee (a homemade goat cheese) highlighted the cold meze selections with fresh, crisp, and bright flavors.  The lebanee – a surprising, creamy treat melted in my mouth with a hint of lemon adding to the tang of the goat cheese.  The falafel trumped the hot mezes for me, with a burst of garlic and spices once the crisp outer shell was penetrated.  My dining companion, who grew up with Middle Eastern food, thoroughly enjoyed the meat and potato cigars,  and commented on how fresh and delicate they were.  I didn’t want the Gazala Platter to end, with endless combinations of dips, spreads, and things to dip and spread onto the sagg pita.

Spinach and Lebanee Boureka at Gazala’s

I managed to control how greedy this food was making me, in order to save room for our waitress’s special recommendation – her personal favorite, the spinach and lebanee boureka. The baked pie was similar to a Greek spanakopita, however the lebanee and pita dough added dimension, subtle whole wheat flavor and a more substantial doughy texture to the oh-so comforting dish.

Moshakal Platter

Next, the moshakal platter ($19.50) – a combination of lamb, chicken, and kafta served with rice and salad.  The kafta was flavorful and moist with the perfect amount of char and surprisingly seemed to melt in my mouth.

Baklava and Turkish coffee rounded out the meal, a perfect sweet end to a meal that transported me to Chef Gazala’s village, made me smile, and filled my heart with warmth from the first bite.

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A hidden Mediterranean gem – Review of Suspenders

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Suspenders
111 Broadway
Financial District
212-732-5005/suspendersbar.com

Buried in a basement down two flights of stairs lies Suspenders.  Suspenders is best known for its after-work bar scene and its close proximity to Wall Street –the heart of the Financial district.  However, Suspenders also serves up a great selection of authentic Mediterranean food that can’t be missed if you’re in the area.

I had the pleasure of dining at Suspenders for the first time with a friend and regular of the bar.   When asked what to order he responded that I absolutely had to try something off the Mediterranean menu.

Meze sharing plate at Suspenders

Meze sharing plate at Suspenders

We ordered the Meze Sharing Plate for 2 ($22) which came with a taste of everything.  Lamb and chicken souvlaki, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), and keftedes (lamb meatballs) served with a side of pita bread and the octopus ($11).

Owner, Michael Panayiotis sat with us as we ate and explained that his food is served the way he had it growing up.  He fondly told us stories of diving for seafood in Cyprus when he was a child and eating everything fresh with only a bit of lemon juice.  His childhood is evident in everything he serves, especially the grilled octopus, tender and marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano; the ingredients speaking for themselves and truly a pleasure to consume.  The dolmades were simple, yet flavorful with the citrus adding a pop of flavor.

Grilled octopus at Suspenders

Grilled octopus at Suspenders

Courtesy of the house, we were also served plates of hummus and babaganoush, all made from scratch.  It was easy to escape the hustle and bustle of New York, and imagine that I was gazing out over the Mediterranean Sea, the breeze blowing through my hair while I listened to stories of his childhood.

Most importantly, Michael emphasized, Suspenders is a place to relax and enjoy good times with good friends; a neighborhood bar with an unsuspecting Cyprian flair.

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A taste of “the Village’ – Review of Khyber Pass

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Khyber Pass
34 St. Mark’s Place
East Village
212-473-0989/orderkhyberpass.com

Khyber Pass was one of those places that I had passed regularly, several times a month, but had never been to.  I finally stopped in when poking around the East Village one night, looking for a cozy nook to enjoy some warm food in.

Hummus at Khyber Pass

Hummus at Khyber Pass

Upon entering, the sweet smell of flavored Hookah tobacco filled my nose and my boyfriend and I were lead to a table at the back of the restaurant.  A corner booth, with well worn seats and an Afghani rug (with a thin sheet of glass over top of it), as the table top.  The room was dark and inviting, filled with warm hues of red, purple, and orange;  if walls could talk, I’m sure the stories of nights past would echo long after the last dish was served for the night.  The service, I quickly learned due to the fact that we were asked 3 times by 3 different people if we were ready to order yet, was in typical East Village style, disorganized and ditsy. [Read more...]

A taste of "the Village' – Review of Khyber Pass

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Khyber Pass
34 St. Mark’s Place
East Village
212-473-0989/orderkhyberpass.com

Khyber Pass was one of those places that I had passed regularly, several times a month, but had never been to.  I finally stopped in when poking around the East Village one night, looking for a cozy nook to enjoy some warm food in.

Hummus at Khyber Pass

Hummus at Khyber Pass

Upon entering, the sweet smell of flavored Hookah tobacco filled my nose and my boyfriend and I were lead to a table at the back of the restaurant.  A corner booth, with well worn seats and an Afghani rug (with a thin sheet of glass over top of it), as the table top.  The room was dark and inviting, filled with warm hues of red, purple, and orange;  if walls could talk, I’m sure the stories of nights past would echo long after the last dish was served for the night.  The service, I quickly learned due to the fact that we were asked 3 times by 3 different people if we were ready to order yet, was in typical East Village style, disorganized and ditsy. [Read more...]