On the Town with Shinan: Charles Khabouth takes Toronto's Byblos to sunny Miami

By Shinan Govani

Photo: © Shinan Govani

Sometime after midnight the other night, after the bulk of the dinner service had ceased, Charles Khabouth got up on a chair to tinker with one of the fanciful light fixtures in his new Miami restaurant.

“Why wait for someone else to do it?' he told me later, Charles being the lithe nightlife impresario who opened his first place, Club Z, nearly 30 years ago in Toronto. He's since gone on to build a unique portfolio of seen-and-be-seens in that town. Fun palaces like The Guvernment (which, earlier in 2015, went to the great boogie in the sky after 18 years) and Cabana Pool Bar (the summer-time spot which goes and goes, and where Will Smith himself was spotted a couple of Sundays back). Also, restaurants like Oceans and Acrobat (his first incursions into the food world, for anyone with a memory) and, more recently, eateries like La Societe, Patria, Weslodge, Nao Steakhouse, etc, etc.

His newest spot, right smack in the middle of the palm tree-adorned South Beach – his first restaurant south of the border- has the same concept, as well as the same name, as his perhaps best-reviewed restaurant back home: Byblos. “Middleterranean” is what some might call it, a melange of cuisines merging together from the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa. “Did you try the Barberi?” Charles asked, referring to a Turkish bread cooked in a stone oven and then served with house-made Labneh and olive oils.

Indeed, I had. Smoky. Sensational.

Having entertained and fed a slew of the who's who in Toronto over the years – including Sandra Bullock, Al Pacino and David Beckham – the man is well positioned to do likewise at this celeb-partial part of Florida referred to, at times, as the "American Riviera." Taking in the place during a sexy sneak-peek on Wednesday, during what humid, languid Miami calls its “off season,” I was suitably impressed by the room, designed by Canadian design firm Munge Leung. Swooping ceilings and coquettish murals that make for a room both gauzy and airy. There's a bar on the first floor, and a coming-soon lounge.

Among others, actor Richard Gere stopped by Byblos during TIFF last year. Photo: © Getty Images

Helmed by his man-on-the-ground, Hanif Harji, Byblos has colonized the classic Shorecrest Building at the Royal Palm Hotel. And, like at the original, executive Chef Stuart Cameron is in the kitchen, fussing over things like the rice a la minute, or rice to order, which is ambitious by any standards. The particular Basmati rices dish I had, served in an ornate silver platter, came married with cinnamon, cumin, cardamon, saffron. The slow-braised lamb leg arrived accompanied by toum (an Egyptian garlic sauce) and was also Maharaja-worthy.

During Art Basel, in particular – the spectacle-packed week of hedonism and luxury that takes over Miami every December – this will be a hot spot for sure. And, indeed, on the night I was there, there were not only a good quorum of sexy ladies right out of a Spanish telenovela in the house, but also two NFL strongmen – Jabaal Sheard from the New England Patriots and Detroit Lion Stephen Tulloch. They dug the prime rib, it looked like.

“Everything here is custom-made,” Charles informed about the space, fretting about some art that has yet to arrive to fill up some walls, a table that's also en route for downstairs. “There is still much to do,” he adds, sounding very much like the kind of perfectionist who is never quite satisfied. And while he's putting on the finishing touches in Miami, he's also turning his attention to other projects on the go, back in Canada. Next up for him: a Morimoto restaurant he's bringing to Toronto, with Mr. Iron Chef himself.

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