Hot Shank, Cool Jazz

Photo by Jessica CalkinsHere are 22 things you should know about Byblos Café:

1. It's a drop-kick from the historic traffic circle in the city of Orange, one of the county's great old neighborhoods and about the best place I can think of for a leisurely summer lunch.

2. "Fine Mediterranean Cuisine" is the advertised fare, and in this case, it means a mix of Lebanese and Greek cuisine (think kebabs and falafel). Not much of a difference between the two, except at Greek restaurants you have large, hairy men dancing together; at a Lebanese restaurant, you have a seductive belly dancer. I will say no more.

3. Why the mix? Could be the name. Byblos is an ancient city near Beirut, but the word itself is Greek. Around 3,000 B.C., the Phoenicians established a seaport there.

4. This has absolutely nothing to do with this restaurant, but I'll bet this is the first time the Phoenicians have been mentioned in an OC Weekly story.

5. Long, narrow room. High ceilings. Whirling ceiling fans. Bebop jazz in the background. Cool.

6. Byblos serves all three meals, but I like it for lunch.

7. What's good here? Start with the lentil soup, the staple of poor socialist students, of which there are few at nearby Chapman University, alma mater of George "24-Hour Airport" Argyros.

8. Hell of a lentil soup, though. Very fresh, thick with lentils. Hint of lemon and Swiss chard. The more it cools, the greater the lemon flavor.

9. You are committing a crime if you do not at least have a cup of this soup.

10. Everything else, my friends, is up for grabs. If you're eating light, you'll swoon over the salads, all packed with fresh veggies and supertasty, light dressings. The pungent feta cheese in the Greek salad will pucker your cheeks.

11. Ever have Mediterranean potato salad? Thought not. But you'll want it here. A light mayo dressing comes to life with the snap of green onions and parsley. The potatoes are boiled and chopped on site.

12. Lots of kebabs, as you'd imagine—chicken, lamb, sirloin, fish, shrimp and veggie. All come with a cup of that lentil soup and rice pilaf, hummus and tabouli salad. None cost more than $7.95. We call that a bargain in my house.

13. Except for the charbroiled fish (halibut or mahi-mahi, depending on the day), all entrées are under $8. Tops of these is the amazing falafel plate. The falafel has a rich, grainy flavor and comes with tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, pickled turnips and tahini sauce. Crush all of them together, and you've got quite a mélange.

14. Me? I like the special du jour. Today, it's lamb shank served on a bed of rice pilaf.

15. Why can't I keep a straight face when I say the word "shank"? My server looks at me oddly.

16. My shank is very hot, so while it cools off, I sip an okay Lebanese wine called the Ksara blanc de blanc. Ksara is the house Lebanese brand; there are also a couple of reds from this label. If you care about wine, you'll get the California vintages on the menu.

17. Yum, yum, yum. This shank is so tender it comes off the bone with only a little pressure from my fork. Kinda fatty, as it should be. Little gamy. Parsley adds a nice tang. (Just to set the record straight, parsley is a vastly underrated herb.)

18. You know what? Right now, a shank and a blanc de blanc are swimming in my belly. I find this highly amusing (please shoot me now).

19. Dessert is a bit limited—baklava with either walnuts or pistachios. Remember how I said a month ago that pistachios were the next big thing? Pay heed.

20. I lunch alone, reading The Orange County Register. I tried to find a Los Angeles Times in the Historic Plaza, but they were all sold out. Someone should take care of this.

21. Except for me, everyone in Byblos Café is well-dressed. It is a slow-paced, friendly, civilized place with wonderful food. You should spend your money there.

22. And the little girl playing in the kiddie house up front is absolutely adorable.

Byblos Café, located at 129 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, is open Mon.-Wed., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 538-7180. Beer and wine. Lunch for two, $15-$25, food only. All major credit cards accepted.


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