By Bernie Whitmore
2 Washington Square (in Worcester’s Union Station)
If you enter Union Station from the main entrance, Byblos Lounge is located on the left end of the main concourse. Like a well-kept secret, there’s no sign proclaiming its presence and some may find this intimidating. But those adventurous enough to enter will be rewarded with a sensory experience, for Byblos leaves several impressions, three of which were immediate.
Barely a step into Byblos, my friend and I simultaneously inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of the Middle East. It reminded me of the spice bazaars of Morocco, Turkey and, closer to home, Ed Hyder’s Market. The scent was spicy and pungent-rich, and I stood there for a moment to drink it in. Also on the air was an exotic mix of music genres that alternated across nu jazz, dance and Lebanese-pop. And if all that weren’t exciting enough, there’s also the room itself. The designers of Byblos exploited the very skin and massive bones of Union Station. They left exposed the raw concrete and rough brickwork, adding classical columns and pediments highlighted by a euro-lounge loaded with lights and mirrors. There’s plenty of color and enough ceramic jars to set up a stall in the Kasbah.
Very few places in town have this degree of embrace; within moments we were seated and had left thoughts of the outside world behind. Byblos boasts “Mediterranean Fusion Cuisine” and is operated by a local Lebanese family. I’ve ordered Lebanese cuisine at several restaurants over the years and was familiar with most of the entrees, but the appetizer list contained selections that were new to me. We were about to discover that this is precisely where Byblos shines.
In the cold appetizer section of the menu is an entry called Bastarma. It’s described as “aged beef wrapped in foreign spices and hung to dry.” A bit scary, but worth researching, which we did. Byblos sliced the deep-red meat paper-thin and rolled it around Haloumi, a soft Cyprian cheese made from sheep’s milk. They loaded up a chafing dish with these rolls and added a splash of fruity olive oil. Consider it a must-try, something akin to Italy’s prosciutto. Its rich flavor seemed a distillation of the spice mix pervading Byblos ~ cinnamon? sumac? cloves?
We also tried a warm appetizer called Makenek, a Lebanese sausage that Byblos cut into pieces and served over baba ghanoush sprinkled with pine nuts, diced sautéed onions, a sprinkling of sumac powder and splash of lemon juice. A bit milder than Bastarma, it showcased another range of flavors. Triangles of fresh pita bread came swaddled in a cloth napkin; we immediately put the bread to use scooping up Byblos’s baba ghanoush.
Both appetizers felt risky to order, but proved rewarding in execution. Byblos truly extends the range of local Lebanese cuisine. Entrée selections, though familiar, also had variations that made them unique.
I ordered Fish Taratoor. Three large chunks of flaky haddock were smothered in rice pilaf, sautéed onion strips and bell pepper. This dish is often soaked in tahini sauce with the fish flaked apart; Byblos used considerable restraint and used perfectly fresh fish.
Don’t expect a vast wine cellar; Byblos offers one vintner, revealed simply as “Lebanese.” After sampling a taste of white, I ordered a glass. Crisp and dry, it complemented both food courses. Just order red or white, you should be satisfied.
Kefta Kebob, my friend’s entrée selection, is a classic Lebanese dish of spiced ground beef formed into long rolls and grilled with chunks of onion, peppers and tomato wedges. Byblos kept the spice level mild and the portion size large. Both entrees were draped with large quarter-loaves of pita bread grilled crisp then rubbed with tomato paste and sprinkled with shopped onion, parsley and spices. It’s a decorative and tasty touch.
There’s a lot to recommend about Byblos Lounge; its stunning location and unique cuisine are just a start. They haven’t been open very long and although people are beginning to discover them, Byblos retains the feel of a hidden gem which actually lies before us in plain sight.