Al Bustan

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Last fall Al Bustan, once the only restaurant in New York offering high-end Lebanese fare, traded in a curtained retreat near the U.N. for more contemporary surroundings. The new space, apparently targeting a younger audience—a swanky lounge with its own late-night menu will soon open in the basement—features cheap-looking, gauzy white fabric wrapped around rustic wooden pillars and an oversize chandelier, hanging like bling, near the front door.

Part of the appeal of the original nearly 20-year-old venue was its sense of old-fashioned discretion—it was easy to imagine international conspiracies being hatched inside. But the new decor reads like a bad face-lift, a disconnect from the self-consciously formal food. And the waitstaff—solicitous but clueless, neglectful verging on absent—seem to have already given up on the place.

One night, our disinterested waiter disappeared for vast stretches, then responded to food queries with grunts (as when we asked what to do with the raw onion on ice served with our unadorned oval of chopped lamb tartare). A manager, who swooped in on occasion to pick up the slack, only made matters worse, forgetting a side of savory yogurt and a glass of dessert wine—then overcharging on the bill.

The food itself poses a problem too. In 1991, when expat chef Elias Ghafary first opened the restaurant, Lebanese cuisine was still a notable gap in the city’s ethnic food landscape. While stylish newcomers like ilili and Naya are offering updated spins on the country’s cuisine, Al Bustan’s repertoire hasn’t changed a lick. The best you can do ordering from the massive menu—40 hot and cold starters and nearly as many main courses—is to make a meal of meze only. A half-dozen small plates adds up to an impressive tapas-style spread.

If you look beyond the Arabic names on the menu, many of these dishes may turn out to be pretty familiar. Sujuk—tender, spicy beef links fragrant with coriander and cumin—are the Lebanese answer to Moroccan merguez. Fried kibbe, bulgur-based footballs found all over the region, are offered here in three variations. We sampled two—one filled with ground lamb and pine nuts, the other with chickpeas and spinach—and both were beautifully crisp on the outside and perfectly juicy within. Among the cold spreads and salads are a few intriguing detours, including walnut and red pepper muhammara, a potent nutty spread sweetened with pomegranate molasses.

While the small plates were light and colorful, the main courses were heavy and generally monochromatic. Molokhia, a lemony stew of mallow leaves (like bitter spinach) and chicken, arrived with old-world formality in a deep copper pot—enough bland greens and mushy meat to feed a family of four. Kouzy, a more impressive entre, was an enormous, phyllo-wrapped bundle filled with buttery pilaf studded with pine nuts, raisins and tender nuggets of lamb.

Middle Eastern desserts tend to be sickly sweet, but even by the usual honey-drenched standards, Al Bustan’s gummy, cream-filled katayef pancakes are cloying. Though the restaurant may have literally found a new lease on life, the young clientele it seems to be courting are keeping their distance (the place was filled with middle-aged suits when I dined there). The food and service won’t grab them, but perhaps the new lounge in the basement will start packing them in.

Cheat sheet

Drink this: Lebanon, home to a large Christian community and an enduring French influence, produces some outstanding wine. Al Bustan offers a decent selection from the Bekaa Valley, including a light, crisp white from Chateau Ksara ($35).

Eat this: A meze spread (sujuk, kibbeh, muhammara), kouzy (phyllo filled with pilaf)

Sit here: The dining room, flanked by wooden beams, feels a bit claustrophobic. The most comfortable seats are up front, offering a view through the big picture windows.

Conversation piece: Elias Ghafary, Al Bustan’s minence grise, studied at a culinary school in Beirut before moving to Paris, where he opened Alamir, his first Lebanese restaurant. He brought the name and the menu with him when he moved to the U.S. in 1988 (Al Bustan is his second New York venture).

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Venue name: Al Bustan
Contact:
Address: 319 E 53rd St
New York
10022-75
Cross street: between First and Second Aves
Opening hours: Mon-Thu, Sun noon–3pm, 5–10pm; Fri, Sat noon–3pm, 5–11pm
Transport: Subway: E to Lexington Ave–53rd St, 6 to 51st St
Price: Average main course: $20. AmEx, Disc, MC, V
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