If you’re going to open a restaurant capable of holding its own against New York’s extant 24,000 eateries, you need to satisfy one of two criteria. Either you need to come with a menu that is quirky enough to inspire curiosity among a jaded dining public or you need to demonstrate mastery of some culinary staple. If you’re able to add in a gimmick — say an Old World domed wood-burning oven that generates temperatures in a range comparable to Naples’s hottest pizza infernos — so much the better.
Managing all three at once would be quite a feat, compelling enough to cause toute Manhattan to beat a path to your door. At pan-Mediterranean restaurant Bustan, scarcely three months old, they are, judging from a weeknight visit that found every table packed with happy eaters.
All start with a footlong loaf of bronzed flatbread, served with excellent olives. This infectious bread is your first encounter with that incendiary oven, the taboon, which is the medium through which most of the hot dishes pass from kitchen to table.
You can’t miss the hummus, which has its own place of honor on the menu, but more importantly you shouldn’t. Here is New York’s best chickpea mash, the spread thick and well-seasoned, studded with whole chickpeas — meaty almost. You’d be rapturous eating it neat, but have it in combination, with, for example, savory braised beef cheeks or perhaps charred lamb kebab. My visit happened to coincide with Bustan’s hummus festival, which gave me a chance to partake of the amazing spread in the company of a crispy loaded potato larded with duck prosciutto and accented with sprightly green salsa. I hope the management will consider adding this remarkable combo to its regular menu. Ditto the one featuring tender and succulent grilled octopus, accented by its light charring.
If the nightly-changing whole taboon-baked fish is branzino the night of your visit, don’t pass it up. The fish, boned before service, is tinctured with fruity Mediterranean olive oil, spread with the herbs and whole sweet garlic that accompanied it during its assiduous cooking. The flesh that arrives before you is rich and tender.
To appreciate the taboon’s — and the kitchen’s — range, order lamb terracotta: three bundles of lamb that are crusted and pink, partnered with grilled onions, pistachios, and tahini, baked and served under a burnished canopy of flaky bread. It is the ultimate pot pie.
For dessert there is something called silan and something called donuts. Silan is a multi-layered affair with a top layer of shredded helva, which the house freezes and shreds, and a foundation of crisp rice, almond brittle, and honey-coated figs. In between is a cooling stratum of milk gelato. The sweet is drizzled before service with a little caramel — a child’s ice cream fantasy for adults. Donuts are — you guessed it — donuts: They are served hot and are chewy and sugared, reminiscent of zeppole. You dip each morsel in a sauce of raspberry, caramel, or, if you’re really flying, chocolate.
Bustan offers seven signature cocktails with distinctly Mediterranean flavors, such as apricot, fig, lavender, and pomegranate. The wine program comprises some 20 by-the-glass offerings and another 60 bottles. Like the cocktails, all are selected to complement the food’s aroma and taste profiles.
Like the food, the décor transcends any single cultural identity, embracing a broad spectrum of Mediterranean hues suggestive of the sea and the beach. A charcoal-colored faux stone wall is punctuated by backlit portholes emblematic of the region’s nautical heritage, while the sleek lines of the Deco-inspired bar conjure up images of the glamorous yachts that ply the Mediterranean’s waters today.
The name, Bustan, is Aramaic (and Hebrew and Arabic) for “garden” or “orchard.” Fittingly, there is handsome little garden out back, for when the weather is fair.
Bustan, 487 Amsterdam Avenue, bet 83rd and 84th Sts, New York, N.Y., 212 595-5050. Prices for appetizers (mazettim) and small plates range from $5 to $17.50; main courses run from $21.50 to $25.95, with special running higher. The restaurant is open daily for dinner and weekends for brunch. All major credit cards are accepted.