214 Mulberry Street, New York NY 10012 (at Spring Street; map); 212-966-7366
Service: Competent and brusquely friendly
Setting: Like a spacious, urbanized living room
Must-Haves: Fried olives, shrimp kataïf, half-chicken
Cost: Small sharing plates $5-9, entrees in the $20-30 range
There's more than a bit of tongue-in-cheek in the naming of Balaboosta, the new Nolita Middle Eastern restaurant from Einat Admony, chef-owner of incomparable falafel shop Taïm.
The term translates to "the perfect housewife," Admony has been quoted as saying, and in a way, Balaboosta is appealingly domestic: stuffed bookshelves, hanging portraits, in a comfortable space far roomier than we would expect from the area. But I've yet to see the "housewife"—at least, one without a formal culinary background—who can turn out dishes of Balaboosta's sophistication. While we walked in with high expectations, given our profound respect for Taïm, Admony is far more than a falafel wizard; with time at Tabla and Danube, she brought a chef's sensibility to a takeout joint, rather than a one-note cook's to a full-service restaurant.
Don't go in expecting Taïm-friendly prices; this is Nolita, after all, and a full-fledged restaurant at that. Still, we found the prices mostly fair, if not exactly gentle, and the quality of the dishes to emerge from the kitchen somewhere between tasty and spectacular.
Some of the strongest dishes, and the best values, are in the front of the menu, in the "shared plates" section. Salty, meaty fried olives ($5), in soft golden brown shells, arrive in a bed of creamy labne cheese complicated by a sharp harissa oil. (We found ourselves popping them like potato chips.) A red quinoa salad ($8), a potential throwaway at other restaurants, is delicious here: dressed amply in fine olive oil, with sweet bits of dried cranberry and the fresh bite of parsley and preserved lemon. And fans of Admony's falafel shop will appreciate Taïm falafel-wrapped Albondigas ($9, and branded as such on the menu). If you manage to stuff both falafel and meatball into one bite, the result is a crispy-edged shell that gives way to a satisfyingly meaty core, all improved by a tahini- and parsley-heavy dipping sauce; if you tentatively nibble, though, you'll end up with two different tastes: the shed falafel skin and a naked meatball. Recommendation: open wide.
Appetizers included a respectable grilled pizza ($11), with a crust that's both pliant and crisp, and a crispy shrimp Kataïf ($13), made memorable by a tangy, gently spicy fish roe sauce that tasted intensely of the sea. And though one of the entrees, a pricey and strangely flat-tasting lamb dish ($28), was the only disappointment of the night, a chicken under a brick ($22) and butcher steak ($25) were both perfectly cooked and far more intricately composed than their simple presentations might suggest.
And desserts, though similarly simple-sounding, didn't disappoint either: a Turkish coffee cardamom molten chocolate cake, a floral (but not quite perfumed) orange blossom malabi, and a wild berry crumble as homey as its creme fraiche ice cream was refined.
The dishes we tried weren't entirely without flaw, and for those accustomed to more casual Middle Eastern fare, may seem quite pricey. That said, Balaboosta has quite a bit to recommend itself—a spacious, almost serene Nolita setting; a reasonably priced wine list, many glasses under $10 and bottles under $40; and dishes that walk a pleasing line of familiar and exciting, expected and surprising, that both more and less adventurous eaters can appreciate. We'd hoped for quite a bit—and we're happy to say that we left more than satisfied.