Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget. He blogs at Ben Cooks Everything.

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Grilled haloume cheese. [Photos: Ben Fishner]

Balade is a new Lebanese restaurant on First Avenue; it replaced Christine's, a long-standing institution that, despite its history, served unremarkable fare in its later years. Sure, it's sad to see it go, but the new tenants are serving what they pitch as authentic Lebanese fare from a menu stacked with salads, mezze, pitzas and sandwiches. I stopped by last week to put it to the Apps Only test.

First off, the bread basket: still-warm-from-the-oven rolls that were half-pita, half-pizza dough, with a light crust and ultra puffy interior, served with olive oil flavored with sesame seeds and sumac, the tangy dried spice often found in Lebanese cooking. A standout bread basket is a good omen for any Apps Only meal, and Balade's was certainly above average.

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Spinach salad.

We started out with one of Balade's mezze options, Grilled Haloume Cheese ($5), slices of the dense, salty cheese griddled until brown and served with cucumber and tomato slices. Haloume isn't for everyone; it's very dense, verging on rubbery, and fairly salty. If you like that, as I do, then you'll love this dish. The cucmber and tomato lighten the heavy dish as far as a dish of fried cheese can be lightened, I suppose.

Balancing out the haloume was the Spinach Salad ($8), a simple salad of fresh spinach with piles of tomatoes, cucumbers, shredded carrot and mushrooms arranged around it and finished with crumbled feta cheese. We ordered it with Balade's house dressing, a lemony vinaigrette flavored with more sumac lending it a tangy finish. It doesn't get much simpler than this, but the ingredients were all of good quality (save for the bland tomatoes) and the feta was especially tasty.

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Jwaneh (grilled wings).

Also from the mezze menu, we tried the Jwaneh ($7), a plate of four chicken wings served over romaine lettuce. The wings were very tasty, rubbed with a hot spice blend and nicely charred on the outside with perfectly cooked meat underneath. While the flavor was spot on, seven bucks seemed a bit steep for this dish. More wings would make this seem more worthwhile—or even putting it on top of a real salad rather than lettuce that just gets coated with chicken grease.

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Tarboush chicken pitza.

Whatever value we lost on the wings was made up for by the Tarboush Chicken Pitza ($10), a large, thin pita topped with thinly sliced marinated chicken, toum (Lebanese garlic aioli), tomatoes, onions, pickles and, slighlty perplexingly, a thick honey dijon sauce. The flavors all worked together, and though the honey dijon seemed a bit out of place, it wasn't a dealbreaker by any means. The pitza (pita + pizza = pitza; cutesy, I know, but it does get the point across) was not only tasty, but the best value of the night.

What we tried at Balade, we enjoyed, but we left multiple menu sections untouched. I wish they'd pare it down a bit; something for everyone is nice, but Balade seems to have 3 or 4 or 8 things for everyone. It was almost like the recently opened restaurant was trying too hard to impress us with options. While Balade may lack confidence, it's certainly on the right track, and if you're looking to share a meal of small plates with friends it'd be hard to go wrong here—we spent exactly $15 per person before tax and tip, hitting the Apps Only target price right on its head.

Balade

208 1st Avenue, New York NY 10009 (map)
212-529-6868
baladerestaurants.com

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