Marvels of the Middle East
for about two decades, al bustan dwelt on third avenue between east 50th and 51st streets, where executive chef/owner elias ghafary's authentic lebanese cookery attracted a large and deeply devoted following. then, in late 2008, ghafary closed that location in favor of a much larger, more commodious and attractive two-level space on east 53rd street. those devotees followed right along, and their ranks swelled significantly.
al bustan's new digs are indeed handsome and quite masculine, utterly devoid of frippery. beautiful wood beams run the length of the ceiling at the entryway, which is festooned with a pair of enormous glimmering chandeliers. an ivory leather banquette runs the length of the east wall, while quite spaciously placed tables are arranged around the west side of the dining room. downstairs is a peaceful, clubby lounge that features signature cocktails and canapés.
in general, most middle-eastern cuisines have many similarities, but lebanese cooking really epitomizes the way mediterraneans eat. blessed with abundant natural resources, from fruits and vegetables to all kinds of seafood, the lebanese also tend to eat poultry more often than red meat and, as in greece, when red meat is on the table it's most often lamb. herbs and earthy spices abound in this lusty, lubricious cuisine.
ghafary attended the culinary school of beirut, a city known as the paris of the middle east. he shot to the top of his class, and after four years of training, he moved to france, eventually ending up at one of the most popular lebanese restaurants in paris. he started his own restaurant, alamir, and in 1988, he moved to new york and started a satellite alamir up on second avenue and east 74th street. after a few years, he opened the original al bustan, and now he's at the top of his game in his striking new restaurant.
the menu is large and rife with temptations. there are more than two-dozen hot and cold appetizers. grilled haloumi cheese is hale and salty and it squeaks agreeably as it is chewed. spicy sun-dried beef, called bastermah, is thinly sliced and arranged on cooling shredded romaine. an abundance of chicken livers are sautéed with bracing pomegranate molasses and not a little garlic.
baba ghannouj is very citric, bouncy and slightly chunky-not the usual laid-back eggplant spread.
a heap of sautéed lamb sausages the size of your pinky are firm, meaty and very lemony; clearly, ghafary favors strong and sometimes even strenuous flavors.
grilled quail make an unusually generous entrée: three nearly boneless quail are perfectly grilled to get crispy skin and rich juicy flesh. i can't remember ever being served more than two.
a hefty, fresh and sassy red snapper fillet is grilled to order, and again the flesh is lemony, obviously a fruit and flavor that the chef and presumably the lebanese cherish.
there are three tartares on the menu: two lamb and one tuna. the ruby chopped raw lamb i tried, habra nayeh, was wound through with marjoram, minced jalapeno, cumin, dried basil and minced onion. the result was sheer lushness on a plate.
desserts are hardly an afterthought, as they often are in mediterranean restaurants. katayef are hearty lebanese pancakes filled with cream and pistachios and drizzled with fine honey. halawat el jiben are lightly sweet cheese rolls also filled with cream. fresh pistachio cookies are plated with a thick arrowroot meringue.
with its relatively friendly prices, dignified but very comfortable atmosphere, and unusual and luscious fare, it's quite easy to see why the new edition of al bustan has been enthusiastically embraced by the neighborhood and far beyond.
319 e. 53rd st.
between first and second avenues
entrées: $19 to $30
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