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.

Restaurant Review: Zora’s Cafe

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Not only did my coworker’s get me gifts for my 29th birthday, including a giant box of Godiva chocolates and a book that’s all about coffee, they also took me out to lunch. We settled on Zora’s Cafe, an unassuming soul food spot on Ninth Avenue between 47th and 48th streets. The restaurant aims to “develop healthier soul food dishes without compromising great taste” by using cage-free eggs and organic vegetables, among other strategies. The simplicity of the menu in the window—four appetizers, seven entrees, only three lunch specials—belied the savory complexity of our meals. Once inside, we noted that the space felt cozy and welcoming, with exposed brick and the smells of the kitchen wafting out into the dining space. What’s more, the mother-daughter duo that started Zora’s were the ones who served us and cooked our food! Now that’s what I call true Southern hospitality, and it was much appreciated.

Our meal began with complimentary cornbread: soft in the center but deliciously crispy on the edges. A hint of citrus added a pleasant zing to it, and I probably could have eaten the entire basket on my own if I hadn’t wanted to save room for my main meal. Adrienne ordered an iced tea, which she enjoyed, while Lisa and I stuck to water. Our server, Zora herself, was extremely welcoming and attentive, checking back to make sure that everything was to our liking and whether we needed anything more. She had no problem answering our questions, even when we asked the same ones twice!

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Then it was time for entrees. Everything on the menu sounded good: fried green tomatoes, battered wings, chicken and waffles, slow-simmered braised beef oxtails. Ultimately we all chose the catfish sandwich; Adrienne and Lisa got theirs fried and accompanied by white bread, whereas I went with pan-seared and whole wheat. The lunch option was only $10, and it came with a side of fries, though Zora explained we could substitute any other side we liked instead. Lisa went with a simple salad, Adrienne chose the spice-dusted potato salad (in the photo on the left, below), and I picked the collard greens (in the photo on the right, below). The sandwiches also came with a hot sauce and a white condiment that was a homemade version of tartar sauce.

Adrienne and Lisa both agreed that their cornmeal-crusted catfish had a ton of flavor, despite being a little salty. Adrienne’s potato salad was rich and creamy. My fish was cooked perfectly, nice and flaky and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The sear gave it a slight char that paired really well with the collard greens. Although the dessert options, including a peach cobbler, sounded so tempting, we all felt too full to give them a try. That’s just one of the many reasons I’m already planning to go back! I’d definitely recommend Zora’s Cafe to anyone looking for a solid lunch or dinner option in the area.

 

Restaurant Review: Annabel

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During my lunch break I often walk around the Columbus Circle and Hell’s Kitchen areas of New York City, and more than once I’ve found myself staring into the windows of Annabel, an artisanal pizza spot on Ninth Avenue. Its interior is rustic-chic, with exposed wooden beams on the ceiling and hanging industrial-style lightbulbs. The tables are sleek and square, and the soft glow of the candles on each renders the room cozy and inviting as evening falls—perfect for a romantic dinner or a girls’ night of gossip. The latter is what I was there for, with my friend and former coworker Anna.

We spent some time looking over the menu, which includes a range of appetizers, salads, pizzas, and full-size entrees like bacon mac and cheese with pork ribs and crispy rice or whole wheat tagliatelle with calamari, clams, scallops, and lobster in lemon-cilantro butter. With so many options, we weren’t sure how to choose, so we started by crossing off what we didn’t want. The buttermilk fried chicken, braised short ribs, and truffled risotto all sounded tasty, but we decided they’d be too much food alongside a pizza. We settled on the spanish octopus with broccoli rabe and a yellow chili emulsion; it seemed relatively healthy and we thought it would make a nice light start to our meal.

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Spanish octopus with broccoli rabe and yellow chili emulsion.

Anna and I both enjoyed this dish, though we thought it could have been a little larger for $12. Instead of three pieces of octopus (we had to cut the last one in half to share), four tentacles would have been more ideal. Otherwise, it was cooked perfectly, not rubbery or mushy in the slightest, with a nice char on the outside. The broccoli rabe had just enough bitterness to leave a pleasant aftertaste but not so much that it made our tastebuds pucker. And the sweet spice of the yellow chili sauce complemented but didn’t overpower the delicate taste of the octopus.

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Pizza with arugula, ricotta, duck prosciutto, and blueberry jam.

For our pizza course, we wanted something unique, and quickly decided against the simple tomato-basil or four-cheese pies. Torn between two options, we went with the more outlandish-sounding one: ricotta, duck prosciutto, blueberry chutney, and arugula. What did we think of this strange mishmash of flavors and textures? Anna said it best: “The combination of duck, blueberry jam, ricotta, and arugula was not supposed to taste good; those ingredients just sound so random and odd. But I was very surprised at how delicious it was!” And it was delicious. The arugula lent the crisp yet still soft crust a tanginess that was perfectly offset by the sweetness of the jam and the creaminess of the ricotta.

The duck prosciutto was the finishing touch: a hint of savory saltiness. Only, I wish there had been at least one slice of duck for each wedge of pizza; we ended up having to break them in half in order to get the taste of the prosciutto on every piece. But overall it was worth it. For $18, we got a six-slice pie that our server described as smaller than your average takeout pizza but larger than a personal pie. It left us pretty full and satisfied…but of course we still found room for dessert.

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Pistachio creme brûlée.

Right away we decided on the pistachio creme brûlée. In all honesty, I can’t say it was a five-star dessert: the brittle caramel on top seemed a little more burnt than strictly necessary (though personally I like burnt things so I didn’t really mind). But aside from that minor flaw, the green-tinged custard delivered a bright flavor and rich creaminess that felt simultaneously fresh yet decadent in our mouths.

All in all, Annabel excelled in all aspects: delicious food, appealing aesthetic, and prompt and friendly service. Both Anna and I plan to return—there are still so many menu items we want to try!—and would definitely recommend adding this to your restaurant circuit.

Restaurant Review: Marta

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For my birthday this year, Todd bought me tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway and made dinner reservations at Marta, a new restaurant from chef Nick Anderer that “reimagines and invents thin-crust pizzas” cooked in wood-burning ovens. Fish, meats, and vegetables are cooked alla brace, over an open-fire grill, and beverages include local craft beers as well as an all-Italian wine list. Located in the Martha Washington Hotel, the space is romantic (think soft lighting and cozy nooks) yet bustling, with an open kitchen, high ceilings, and tall windows that looked out onto the street.

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Restaurant Review: Moon Star Grill in Riverdale

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One of my best friends has lived in many places, including Mexico, Oregon, and Chicago. Luckily for me, she’s back in New York for a while—and that means we get to try out a ton of great restaurants together. This weekend, Todd joined us for dinner at an Asian-fusion gem, Moon Star Grill, in Riverdale, New York. This sleek spot features high-quality Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese offerings in a setting so friendly and serene that we lingered much longer than planned, sipping hot Jasmine tea and nibbling on chilled pineapple chunks.

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