Rise in the East: Byblos, Fat Pasha and the Middleterranean craze
Toronto’s Middleterranean dining scene (that’s a mash-up of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean) moves beyond falafel houses and shawarma carts
11 Duncan St., 647-660-0909
414 Dupont St., 647-340-6142
No one truly craves cauliflower. But, like parsnips, celery root and other produce I associate with the Great Depression, or simply with depression, it’s now on all the menus, the latest obsession of the same chefs who’ve spent the last few years exploring the more remote sectors of carnivorism. At Fat Pasha, Anthony Rose’s new restaurant on Dupont, a few blocks west of his Rose and Sons and Black Crow, he roasts a whole cauliflower until the florets char and the woody central stem turns tender and sweet. The roasted head is dressed with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and lashings of tahini and skhug—a garlicky Israeli herb and chili sauce. The dish is huge—the server brings it to your table with a steak knife—and weirdly addictive. I know people, not a vegetarian among them, who gleefully share Rose’s cauliflower as if it were a main course porterhouse. But it’d be a mistake to skip the restaurant’s grilled sea bream with a fragrant gremolata of preserved lemon and red finger chilies, or the hefty chicken thighs in a smoky-sweet pomegranate barbecue sauce.
I’d stuff myself at Fat Pasha every week if Rose didn’t have so much competition. He opened around the same time as a handful of trendy places cooking what is being called Middleterranean cuisine—part Middle Eastern, part Mediterranean, a culinary mash-up that owes its popularity to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, chefs who run a group of delis and restaurants in London, England. It’s because of Ottolenghi, who is Israeli, and Tamimi, who is Palestinian, that my pantry is full of harissa paste, za’atar, sumac and jars of preserved lemons.
I spotted a couple of their bestseller cookbooks on a shelf at Fat Pasha, and the same influence is plain to see at Queen West’s Rose City Kitchen, where cooks stuff fresh-baked pita with harissa, apricot, almonds and couscous. Ditto at College’s District Oven, where sumac flavours the chicken and caramelized onions on flatbread pizzas, and at Dundas West’s S. Lefkowitz, a hummus bar where Ezra Braves, the owner of Ezra’s Pound café, makes six versions of hummus and a minty tomato-onion salad. Hummus bars are commonplace in Israel but a novelty here, and make total sense once you try freshly made, organic hummus, so creamy and flavourful compared to the gritty sludge sold in supermarkets.
The best of the Middleterranean newcomers is Byblos, which occupies two floors of a 170-year-old former warehouse around the corner from the Princess of Wales theatre. A suited valet opens the door to the lower-level main dining room—one of the most elegant in the city, with caramel leather banquettes, copper Sputnik-style chandeliers and a barrel vaulted ceiling. It’s pretty much a given that the men in charge of this stylish spot are the restaurateurs Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth, the duo behind the King West Spanish restaurant Patria and the gastropub Weslodge, which is always full of money managers (second locations of each are scheduled to open in Dubai, of all places). They’d originally planned a fish and seafood restaurant for the Duncan location, then took note of the interest in Middleterranean cuisine. Khabouth was born in Lebanon and welcomed the excuse to show Toronto just how great the food of his youth can be.
The chef in charge is Stuart Cameron, a 38-year-old Australian who learned a thing or two about globalism while cooking under Roger Mooking at Kultura. He boned up on Middleterranean food, and brought to Byblos the same exacting standards he did to Patria’s patatas bravas and paella. He oversees a crew of 22 who hand-roll couscous from Tunisian semolina and bake a Persian barbari-style flatbread in a wood-fired oven.
One night, I took along two card-carrying members of the Ottolenghi cult. The Byblos menu is designed for sharing, and you’ll want to order a dozen or so dishes for a fair sampling. We started with marcona almonds dusted with paprika and lime zest, a bowl of warmed olives zinged with citrus and chili, and a plate of the house-made labneh—a thick Persian-style yogurt that we scooped up with chunks of that wood-oven flatbread. Our table was soon crowded with hand-painted Turkish plates of pinched dumplings stuffed with smoky roasted eggplant, deep-fried lamb ribs sticky from a chili-flecked molasses, a grilled rib-eye smothered in a za’atar-flavoured butter, chunks of halibut that had been wrapped in grape leaves then grilled, and steak tartare, which was bright and fresh and dabbed with labneh for a hit of sourness but could have used more chili heat. Byblos’s cauliflower is less of a showpiece than Fat Pasha’s, but it’s just as tasty from a fry in duck fat.
The star of the night was a lidded clay pot the server opened at the table, releasing a cloud of saffron-scented steam. Inside was a mound of jewelled basmati rice—the jewels, it turned out, were marcona almonds, pomegranate seeds and barberries. Resting on top was a nest of deep-fried carrot strings. The rice was moist and sweet and just a little over-the-top—it’s traditionally served at Persian weddings. We finished with Turkish coffee and mint tea, bowls of date-tahini and burnt-honey ice creams, and a plate of cigar-shaped brik pastries filled with a caramel cream.
We were too elated by all these treats to let it end, so we climbed the building’s old wooden staircase to the second-floor lounge, which has a long cocktail bar and crescent-moon sofas occupied by models and their admirers—the kind of Khabouth-Harji party scene I’ve come to expect. A few tables were sharing punch bowls of a dangerously potent-sounding mix of boozes, pomegranate syrup and rosewater. The bartenders serve cocktails with other flowery additions, as well as wine from a long list with pricy-but-worth-it bottles from Lebanon’s famous Chateau Musar. I went for a glass of arak—the Lebanese version of pastis. There’s debate among purists about whether the anise liquor is better as an aperitif or a digestif, but I wasn’t thinking about that. It’s a hot-weather drink and exactly what’s needed on a trip into the Middleterranean.