Restaurant Review: Bustan

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Bustan is a small, bustling, nearly overflowing space, wedged between King Food Chinese and a fairly nondescript pub on the Upper West Side’s Amsterdam Avenue. Inside, it’s sweltering, but somehow feels cozy, like you’ve been bundled into a giant womb. Unfortunately we ended up outside on the covered back patio, warmed only by heat lamps that were mostly directed at a big party sitting off to one side. And it seemed like, back there in the chilly dim light, that we’d been forgotten about; our server hardly came to our table, and it took about 20 minutes before we could even place our order. Suffice to say, I was not looking upon the restaurant fondly. But then the food arrived, and all my complaints withered away. The eclectic Mediterranean dishes were zesty and flavorful, prettily presented, and delicious.

To start, we ordered a rich, thick hummus, paired with a warm loaf of bread and olives. The bread was light and airy, perfect dipped into the hummus, and we quickly finished the first loaf and asked for a second, which didn’t seem to be a problem. We also ordered an appetizer special: lamb buns with onions. The dough resembled the soft chewiness of bao (one of my favorite kind of buns!), and the lamb was spiced and seasoned really well.

For my meal, I ordered a salad, with roasted beets, baby arugula, red onions, and pistachio-crusted coat cheese (that big circular thing plopped on top). Since I wasn’t sure if it’d be enough food, I also ordered the grilled octopus appetizer, which came on a bed of white beans and tomato and was drizzled with a cilantro oil. The octopus was really tender, not too tough or too chewy, and I loved the mix of flavors in the dish. The salad was also good, but a little too dressed for my taste. We also had an issue with our food arriving on time: Todd’s cousin’s wife and I both got our salads before our husbands got their food, even though we’d asked for them as our meal, and we ended up waiting nearly 15 minutes before we could all eat together.

Todd ordered the lamb terracotta, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. It came out as a savory bread dome, which our served cut away to reveal a sort of tagine inside, featuring hearty chunks of lamb, tomato, peppers, and a whole host of spices. The lamb had a nicely charred exterior and a soft interior, and the flavors in the dish were the perfect combo of spiced but not too spicy. And of course the presentation was undeniably cool, especially since the bread dome could then be dunked into the stew.

And lastly, dessert. Todd and I shared the chocolate cake, and Todd’s cousin and his wife opted for the doughnuts, which the kitchen was able to make without eggs to accommodate his egg allergy. (I’m not sure what they used instead.) The plating of the chocolate cake was gorgeous, and I loved the unexpected pairing of cherries and cornflakes and hazelnut gelato. The cake itself was also good, but a little disappointing in texture. Todd and I had both been expecting something a little softer and denser and pudding-like. Todd’s cousin and his wife enjoyed the doughnuts, which came with three different dipping sauces, including chocolate and raspberry.

After dinner, we enjoyed a nice stroll and pleasant conversation. All in all, despite some setbacks and frustrations, Bustan delivered where it mattered: the food.

Spring Garden 2017

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The weather is finally getting warmer, and I can’t wait for the 70-degree days predicted later this week. I’ve been getting outside more often. We recently completed our second attempt at the TD five-borough, forty-mile bike tour, ran our favorite chocolate 5k, and visited the Chihuly exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens (more about all of those in posts to come soon). And just yesterday we finally got in the garden—weeding and pruning and turning the soil and adding a bunch of new little plants that I can’t wait to watch grow!

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We haven’t yet transplanted the ones that dad’s been nursing from seeds because they’re too small, so we saved some space for them in our second planter. We have our usual herbs: sage and lilac and chives and mint that all resurfaced from last year, as well as some sweet basil, purple basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill. This year we really want to have more of a veggie haul, so we focused a bit more on those: snap peas, green beans, red and yellow bell peppers, five varieties of tomato, three types of eggplant (black, white, and Japanese), two types of squash, onions…and watermelon!

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I’m not sure that the watermelon will actually grow very well, but we figured it couldn’t hurt to try. It would be so awesome to have a fresh-from-the-garden watermelon! We’ve also got blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and black raspberries all growing on the side of the house; I’m hopeful that the black raspberry bush will actually start yielding some fruit this year. I’m excited to start taking care of the garden and spending the rest of the spring with my hands in the dirt. And I can’t wait to hear what everyone else is growing this year!

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Easter Baking to Celebrate Spring

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Though the Christmas season is my favorite time of year, Easter takes a close second place in the holiday hierarchy because it’s filled with so much joy, from uplifting songs at church to green buds on the trees. As Christ arose from death, the world is waking up: I can hear birds chirping in the morning while I get ready for work. The weather no longer requires a coat and scarf and gloves and hat and double socks. All of that makes me want to celebrate—and how better to express my delight than with some Easter baking?

This year mom made all the dinner dishes while I tackled the desserts: brownies, a fruit & yogurt tart, a lemony cheesecake, and a banana cream pie. I spent all day in the kitchen on the Saturday before Easter, and it was wonderful! Todd helped with the baking, and together we listened to several Disney soundtracks, including my top two favorites, Moana and Pocahontas. I probably annoyed Todd with my…let’s just say overly enthusiastic…singing (to the same song three times in a row), but he barely complained. And he even decorated a super cute Easter egg for me later that night. He’s too good for me!!

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Cute egg Todd made for me: the two of us holding hands in a hot air balloon with a rabbit on it.

I considered providing all of the dessert recipes here, but then thought that might be information overload, so instead I’ll just share my thoughts on each; if anyone is interested in the recipes, let me know and I can write up a separate post for that particular one.

The brownies were the first of my four projects. I followed the “signature” recipe from Butter & Chocolate by Sheila G. Mains, the creator of the popular Brownie Brittle snack. You know that debate between cocoa powder or chocolate chips? This recipe solves it by using both—resulting in decadent, fudgy, delicious brownies. I stacked my two heart-shaped brownie cakes and slathered store-bought dark chocolate frosting over them.

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Next up was the fruit tart: the puff pastry exterior only required thawing and baking, and I topped the cooked dough with a mixture of Siggi’s plain and Chobani vanilla yogurt. Then I layered on some fruit and drizzled honey over it, and voila! Done! So easy it only took two sentences to explain. Plus it was relatively healthy, and the tart flavors of the yogurt helped balance out the sweetness of the other three desserts.

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The cheesecake required a bit more effort: I had to first make the lemon curd glaze and leave it to cool in the fridge for four hours. While it cooled, I made the cheesecake itself, using a copycat recipe of the Cheesecake Factory’s vanilla bean cheesecake. I refuse to go through the effort of a water bath (plus I don’t like how soft it can leave the cheesecake), so mine cracked a bit, but since I planned to cover it anyway, I didn’t worry too much. Once it cooled, I topped it with the lemon glaze and fresh blueberries. Oh, and a carrot cake Hershey’s kiss to represent Jesus on the cross haha.

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The banana cream pie took the most work, but it was also most worth it. I’d never made this particular dessert before, and it was a bit of a learning curve when it came to whisking the custard to just the right consistency. I layered the banana-vanilla custard with fresh bananas in a crust made of crushed pretzels, peanuts, and peanut butter, with a bittersweet chocolate bottom. Then I made a super easy whipped topping and finished it off with a garnish of chocolate shavings. I was really proud of the finished pie, and I was glad to hear on Easter that everyone liked it!

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What did you make for Easter? What’s your favorite part of the holiday?

 

Restaurant Review: The Hudson House

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My favorite cousin and I had originally scheduled to get together last month, but an unexpected bout of viral and bacterial conjunctivitis in both my eyes quashed our plans. Finally recovered, I met up with her on Saturday for brunch in Nyack, New York, on the Hudson River. We went to a fine-dining restaurant called The Hudson House, located in the town’s former village hall and jailhouse. The cells are still intact, but now they hold the eatery’s wine instead of the inebriated citizens who’ve drunk too much of it! The dining room is cozy yet classy, with sloping angles and dimmed lighting and formal white tablecloths, and there’s also an outdoor seating area (which wasn’t open on our visit but is probably a nice spot to enjoy breakfast in the summer months).

The brunch menu wasn’t as extensive as other places we’ve been, but it did have something for everyone, from vanilla yogurt and omelets and a country breakfast with two eggs any style, sausage, roasted tomato, english muffin, home fries, and toast to lump crab cakes, an organic salmon salad, and a half-pound burger. We’d already looked at the menu beforehand and knew what we wanted, but it still took a while for our waiter, Jose, to come to our table because the restaurant was pretty crowded and other diners had arrived before us. On the plus side, that gave us ample time to enjoy the complimentary bread basket, which contain mini corn muffins (I found them a little too dry but Todd popped one after another into his mouth no problem) and some kind of fluffy sourdough bread that tasted divine with a smear of the incredibly soft, whipped butter that came with it.

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Complimentary bread basket with butter and a cup of bold, flavorful coffee and milk.

Finally we got around to ordering our meals: my cousin had her heart set on the french toast; Todd and I decided to split the pancakes and the eggs benedict since we couldn’t choose between them. When our food came, we dug right in because we were starving. First up, the french toast. Four triangles of thick, doughy brioche bread were crusted with cornflakes and stuffed with peanut butter, accompanied by fresh berries, bacon, and pure maple syrup. It was a dish that would fill you up and keep you full long after the meal. It had just the right amount of crunch from the cornflakes, but we thought there could have been more peanut butter inside and more fruit scattered on top. But all in all it was decadent and satisfying, even though my cousin only managed to eat half of it!

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Peanut butter-stuffed brioche french toast.

Todd and I shared the toasted coconut pancakes, topped with blueberry compote. Again, though I strongly felt there could have been more blueberry on this dish to brighten it up with fruity goodness (I only got seven blueberries; I counted), it was extremely tasty. The coconut flavor really came through, and the pancakes themselves were cooked to perfection: a little crisp on the outside but warm and fluffy on the inside. Because it came with four generously sized pancakes, this was a perfect choice for sharing. I could never have eaten it all on my own!

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Coconut pancakes with blueberry compote.

And now for the savory half of our shared meal: eggs benedict with prosciutto, portobello, baby arugula, and truffle vinaigrette. This was the smallest of the three dishes, and Todd definitely wouldn’t have been satisfied if this were all he’d ordered. We had no complaints about the flavors in this dish—a mix of peppery and salty and tangy—though our eggs were a little overcooked. The truffle vinaigrette went really well with all the other components, and Todd said the english muffin paired nicely as well. (I opted to put my egg and meat and mushroom on top of a pancake instead of eating the english muffin.) I also didn’t try the few breakfast potatoes that came with it, but Todd approved.

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Eggs benedict.

Since this brunch was a belated birthday celebration for me, we couldn’t pass up dessert. All of the desserts at the restaurant are made in house, and they all sounded divine! We were torn between the banana cream pie (with fresh bananas, a chocolate bottom layer, a gingersnap crust, and tons of whipped cream on top) or the sticky toffee pudding (with toffee sauce and candied ginger). Jose, our waiter, recommended the former, so we went with that…but then he surprised us and bought us both desserts, with the sticky toffee pudding on the house! We were so excited and grateful to him. Both were really good, but I found the sticky toffee pudding a little too rich and sweet; after one or two bites, I felt like I’d had enough. As for the banana cream pie, on the other hand, I could have eaten the entire slice and more because it was the best piece of pie I have ever eaten. Ever. Sweet and soft and fresh and intensely flavorful, it turned a good brunch into a fantastic one. I’m already craving more of it. (Pictures of both are in the slideshow below.)

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So although The Hudson House could have improved some aspects of our meal, we definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to friends visiting the area. And if you go, please do not forget to order a slice of the pie. I promise you won’t regret it (except you might be tempted to order another piece…or two or three…to take home with you)!

One-Sentence Reviews: My February & March Reads

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This morning I started my first book of spring: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s my 17th book so far this year, as I steadily make progress toward reading 55 works of fiction and nonfiction—and maybe I’ll even try to throw in some poetry or graphic novels to keep things diverse. In January I posted mini reviews of my first five books of the year, and now seemed like a good time to reflect on the rest of my winter reading while gearing up for warmer weather and hopefully many days sitting on my porch with a good story in hand.

Worth It…

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick: I love that this glittering, stylized novel doesn’t shy away from tough and sometimes taboo topics, all while successfully unraveling the gordian knot linking its two suffering protagonists.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: When old beliefs are denounced in favor of a new religion, only a young gifted girl can see the terror coming to her town; this spellbinding tale of magic, folklore, and history is a new kind of fairytale that can easily hold its own among the classics.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware: This thrilling mystery about a bachelorette party gone wrong is so compelling that I finished it in only one day, unable to rest until I had found out just what it was the narrator couldn’t remember about the murder that had taken place.

Don’t Bother…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith:  This novel—which traces the history of a painting and its painter, and its forged counterpart and its painter—has too many subplots and could have been told in half the number of words.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: The only good thing about this thinly plotted novel is its original premise: a floating bookshop that doles out books like medicine (too bad the book quickly leaves that idea behind and heads instead into cliche and oft-charted waters).

The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick: I had high hopes for this book, billed as similar to the writings of Sarah Addison Allen (one of my favorite authors!) and Alice Hoffman, but its unrefined characters and muddled plot fail to generate even a shred of magic.

Recipe: Irish Soda Bread

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With sleet clattering down outside and aboveground subway service suspended, I found myself stuck at home during yesterday’s blizzard. School, of course, had already been canceled, so Todd was home too, and I wanted to bake us something yummy, something perfect for a cozy snow day. I decided that something would be Irish soda bread, considering this Friday is St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve never tried to make it before so I was a little worried, but then I found a really simple recipe on The Kitchen (one of my go-to websites for food facts and ideas). And though there are a few things I might do differently next time (include a little more sugar; add more raisins), I’m still really pleased with the result! It had a mild sweetness and a moist yet still kind of crumbly texture, which I enjoyed cold with a mug of hot coffee and then toasted this morning with butter and jam.

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Because I didn’t have buttermilk and could barely get up my driveway without slipping on ice, let alone travel to the store, I had to DIY the process by adding two tablespoons of lemon juice to two cups of regular whole milk and letting it sit for 30 minutes to thicken. Another way to do this is with vinegar, as my fellow blogger over at Happiness in Jars did yesterday when she, too, baked an Irish soda bread! And now for the recipe, slightly adapted from the one I found on The Kitchn:

Ingredients
~Oil or nonstick cooking spray, for greasing
~4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
~3.5 cups all-purpose flour
~1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
~2 Tbsp. sugar
~2 tsp. baking powder
~1 tsp. baking soda
~1 tsp. salt
~2 cups buttermilk
~1 cup raisins (I  used a mixture of regular and golden)
~2 Tbsp. heavy cream, for brushing

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Preparation
~Make sure oven rack is in the middle position, then preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet with oil or nonstick cooking spray.
~In a large bowl or the bowl a stand mixer, whisk together flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
~Add butter cubes and use your hands to squish them with dry ingredients until mixed and no large clumps remain.
~Add buttermilk and raisins and either use a spatula or a stand mixer’s dough hook to combine. When wet and sticky, remove dough from bowl, plop onto prepared baking sheet, and shape into a slightly flattened ball about 7 to 8 inches in diameter.
~Using a sharp knife, score a large X into the top of the loaf from end to end, about a half-inch deep. Brush top of loaf with heavy cream.
~Bake until golden on top and the center of the X has lost its wetness, about 45 to 50 minutes. Around the 30-minute mark, check to make sure bread isn’t too brown; if it is, tent with foil and continue baking until done.
~Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before serving. Store, wrapped, at room temperature for up to three days.

Nutritional information: approximately 85 calories per ounce.

 

My Fastest 5k Yet!

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16939531_10106026132379209_4669073140362198351_nThis year Todd and I are working toward the NYRR 9+1 program, in which you run nine races and volunteer at one to gain guaranteed entry into the 2018 NYC marathon. (No, we have never attempted such a long distance before. No, I am not sure I even can run an entire marathon. But I know I have to try, at least once in my lifetime.)

Because we figured January and February would be super cold, we chose the Washington Heights 5k in March as the first of our nine runs. Did I expect it to feel a little bit like spring? Silly me. The temperate was in the 20s; I could see my breath while we hurried to the starting line. I’d dressed in high socks, leggings, a tank top with a pretty warm jacket on top, gloves that could become mittens, and my Pusheen hat—and though that combination worked perfectly during the race, it left me hopping around trying to stay warm while we waited in our corral.

The course was a simple out-and-back that looped up through Fort Tryon Park, taking us around the Cloisters, a MET museum specializing in medieval art and architecture. I highly recommend checking out the collections there; the entire museum is so incredibly peaceful and awe-inspiring. It’s also situated at the top of a very large hill, which we had to run up as part of the race. This is where I say thank you to the creators of Disney’s Moana soundtrack: As I labored up the steepest of the inclines, the song “How Far I’ll Go” popped up on my playlist, and its yearning buoyancy gave me the push I needed to stay strong and positive. From there just another small hill, and then I sprinted the rest of the way down Fort Washington Avenue, about a mile left to the finish line.

I didn’t catch my time as I crossed, but I felt really good, not winded or aching despite what I knew had to have been a faster pace than usual. I’m hopeful that this means my weekly combination of one long run and several short speed bursts is training me to become a better runner—either that or I was just trying to outrun the cold! When I later checked my chip time, I’d completed the course in 27 minutes and 7 seconds, a new PR. I’m a little worried that it was just a fluke and I’ll fall behind in my next race, but the only way to find out is to sign up and run. One down, eight to go…2018 NYC marathon, here we come!