Middle Eastern flavors from Byblos and Falafelista spice up takeouts amid the latest COVID-19 wave

December 3, 2022 by No Comments

Here we go again. Like much of the rest of Japan, Tokyo is back on an emergency footing. We, along with all the restaurants across the city, are facing the same old restrictions: reduced hours, early closing times, and limits on serving alcohol.

Clearly, the pandemic is nowhere close to being over. And, for the time being, not in winter. Even so, as we pivot back to takeout menus or deliveries from our local favorite eateries, there’s no harm in dreaming of better times and warmer climates while we wait for this latest wave to recede. That gets just a little bit easier when you’re savoring a spread from Byblos.

Tokyo’s newest Lebanese restaurant is just nine months old, but it has pedigree aplenty to go with those beguiling aromas of cumin and coriander seed, fenugreek, mint, and sumac. Chef Nazih Ameta spent eight years as a chef at the Lebanese Embassy here in Tokyo. Later, he gained a devoted following as the man behind the counter at the Arabic restaurant Shukran Nakai, in northwest Shinjuku Ward.

Then, when the time came for him to open a place of his own last May, he found a site in a quiet corner of Shiba, close to Hamamatsucho Station, and named it after his hometown, the historic coastal city of Byblos to the north of Beirut.

Working together with his wife, he initially ran it solely as a takeout deli and bakery. Belying its compact size, it offered a great range of prepared foods — from classic meze (starters) such as hummus and falafel to hearty meat sandwiches and kebabs — plus a remarkable array of confections and desserts.

Over the new year break, Ameta remodeled the space, creating an all-day restaurant with enough table seating for a couple of dozen people, generous set lunches for the midday traffic, and a more substantial a la carte menu in the evening. Crucially, at the back of the shop, he has kept his takeout deli showcase.

Look to the bottom-right section first. That’s where you’ll find mackdouce (aka makdous), the classic Lebanese hors d’oeuvre of eggplant stuffed with walnut and spices; labaneh (yogurt strained to the consistency of thick cream); mutabbal and babaganuj — intriguingly, at Byblos it’s the mutabbal that is akin to the creamed eggplant salad better known in the West as baba ghanoush, whereas Ameta’s babaganuj is a salad of chopped eggplant, pimiento and pomegranate; and his supremely smooth, creamy homos (hummus).

Already you have the makings of a superb meze platter. To make it into a full meal, just add a few of the deep-fried or grilled dishes: crunchy falafel; crisp, triangular parcels of feta cheese in flaky pastry, called sambousek; kibbe, croquettes of ground meat mixed with bulgur wheat; shish taouk, skewer-grilled chicken marinated in yogurt and lemon; or shish kofta, kebabs of spicy ground meat.

All these are served as separate dishes, as sandwich wraps, on rice, or with rice on the side. Best of all for these uncertain times, most can be ordered for delivery. Don’t overlook the sweets and cookies either. The nutty, syrup-drenched, deluxe pistachio baklava makes a suitably transporting end to the meal, whether it’s at Byblos or delivered to the safety and comfort of your own home.

Shiba 1-7-1, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0014; 03-6453-7182; @beebelos on Twitter; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closed Mon); set lunch from ¥1,300 (takeout), ¥1,400 (eat-in); sandwiches ¥1,000; dinner a la carte; alcohol not served; nearest station: Hamamatsucho; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken.

Filling falafel plates and colorful sides

A cheerful plate of falafel and sides available from Falafelista. | COURTESY OF FALAFELISTA
A cheerful plate of falafel and sides is available from Falafelista. | COURTESY OF FALAFELISTA

If you prefer your falafel with more of a non-traditional, contemporary accent, then you should also know about Seira Motoyama and her excellent Falafelista operation. Starting with an irresistible recipe for the bite-size, deep-fried chickpea nuggets, she has developed an all-vegan pop-up lunch counter that for the past year has been running four days a week out of the sleek, chic Bar 19 in Hiroo.

Besides her highly satisfying falafel plate (¥1,500), featuring a colorful mix of side salads, Motoyama has also come up with some intriguing takes on the genre: a falafel salad bowl (¥1,000), a brilliant falafel burger (¥1,200) and mini falafel burgers (¥500). All are offered either as eat-in, takeout, or for delivery.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues, and other public spaces.

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