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.