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: 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)!

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.

Favorite Foods at the Village Voice Choice Eats Tasting Event

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A few weeks ago, Todd and I attended the Village Voice Choice Eats tasting event, where hundreds of foodies gathered to sample delicacies from more than 50 restaurants located in Manhattan and the boroughs. We expected the event to be jam-packed, but the crowds spread out pretty evenly and we didn’t have to wait in super long lines to sample any of the food—though certain crowd favorites, such as Luke’s Lobster, ran out of bites before we made our way to their tasting table. Here are some of our favorites, all from restaurants that we had never tried before but have now added to our list of places to eat in and around the city.

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