When Elias, the owner of Al Bustan, told us that the kitchen would be preparing some dishes for us to try, we were not anticipating the feast about to be set before us. Al Bustan - which, in Arabic, means "The Orchard" - presents a gourmet take on traditional Lebanese food, featuring a variety of meat-based and vegetarian dishes representative of the country's rich culinary heritage.
Elias Ghafary, previously a restaurateur in Paris, first conceived of opening a restaurant in Manhattan when visiting friends here in 1987. They took him to a Lebanese "greasy spoon" that served what he calls "old fashioned" Lebanese food. Elias explained that this meant that all of the food is served on one plate, the meat is fattier and cooked for longer, and there is generally less of an emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients. Needless to say, this did not meet his high standards, and in 1989 Elias opened his restaurant on Third Avenue. In 2009, Al Bustan moved into its current home on 53rd Street.
Elias considers Al Bustan to be an American success story as much as it is a Lebanese one. "America is a country of opportunity - when you have a good idea, people help you," he said. Elias recalled how, after September 11, longtime patrons sent letters of support and began to come to the restaurant more frequently recognizing that he was experiencing some difficulties, simply because of his native land. After one anti-Arab graffiti incident involving his restaurant, he told us that there was an NYPD surveillance vehicle on his block the next day, keeping an eye out for any trouble.
Thankfully, Al Bustan is thriving in its larger 53rd Street location. Initially, we tried some of Al Bustan's classic dishes including creamy hummus, baba ghanouj and light, crispy falafel. But the plates kept coming as Elias wanted members of the Manhattan Sideways team to sample his personal favorite, Kibbeh - fried balls of cracked bulgur wheat mixed with ground lamb, and the vegetarian version made with pumpkin. Safiha, miniature meat pies with a flaky crust filled with lamb, tomatoes and pignoli nuts was very popular with the group as was the tender lamb, succulent chicken and flavor-filled filet mignon kebabs. And if that was not enough to satisfy our appetites during the lunch time hours, the staff then presented us with a selection of yogurt and honey-based desserts. Most of the food is served meze-style, the Middle Eastern equivalent of tapas. This manner of serving is meant to emphasize taste - quality over quantity. "Kings never finished their plates," Elias mused to us.
The delectable assortment of French pastries was only the beginning of the excitement for me when I first visited Eclair Bakery. Getting to observe and speak with owner Stephane Pourrez, as he was preparing pastries, macarons, croissants and, of course, a variety of eclairs made the experience very special. An alumnus of Ferrandi, the French School of Culinary Arts in Paris, Pourrez worked in New York for a year as a pastry chef before he fulfilled his "childhood dream" of opening his own bakery. No matter what time I chose to pop in, I always found others sipping on their cafe au lait, and mingling with fellow French natives.
Lyn Trotman describes Quest as “a peaceful sanctuary in the heart of midtown.” President of the New York Theosophical Society, which studies the wisdom behind various world religions, Lyn also operates the Society’s book shop, Quest. The store is a pleasantly-scented oasis, with a section devoted to incense, candles, and gemstones. People interested in esoteric studies and rituals can browse through books on every conceivable spiritual tradition, from Kabbalah, to Sufism, to Buddhism, and all things in between. “A lot of other metaphysical bookstores are gone. We are the oldest one left.”