BY CRAIG CAVALLO
When you eat at a restaurant that serves foreign fare, the food should act as a portal. It should open doors that warp space and time and take you on a tour of the country’s cuisine. The success of the journey is entirely up to the chef, and in the case of Balaboosta, Einat Admony proves to be a wonderful tour guide. We were introduced to her culinary stylings in 2005, when Taim was opened in the West Village out of a longing for the street food of Tel Aviv. Balaboosta results from a desire to serve these authentic Middle Eastern flavors in a more formal setting. The restaurant will have its second birthday this year, though something tells me it’s going to skip the terrible two’s.
Balaboosta is a Yiddish word that means “perfect housewife” and the atmosphere is ripe with these sentiments. It feels as if you’ve walked into the chef’s apartment. A picture of her aunt is the first thing you see, and the only thing to dress the white brick wall it hangs on. It’s intentionally lit and hints at the significance of tradition and heritage that comes forth in the cuisine.
The beverage program dances a sensual tango around the fact that they don’t have a full liquor license. Wine based cocktails and wines by the glass prove to be excellent distractions from the long waits. There is a white on offer from Rueda, Spain. It is here, planted at high elevations, that the acidic verdejo grape thrives. It is blended with a small amount of sauvignon blanc and the result is a very aromatic, bright, and mineral driven wine. Four thousand miles away from home it shines in the glass and makes for an utterly delightful way to start an evening.
The menu is predominantly Middle Eastern but shows influences from neighboring Mediterranean countries, particularly among the small plates. Patatas bravas ($7), a staple in Spanish tapas, are served beneath a dusting of za’atar and accompanied with a garlic aioli. Crispy cauliflower ($10) comes to us via the coastal city of Palermo in Sicily and is balanced here with currants, pine nuts, and lemon. Harissa oil, inspired by the North African chili sauce, adds a bright streak to the fried olives ($7) that come piled above organic labneh. The golden quinoa salad ($7) is a reflection of Balaboosta’s roots and is the perfect harmony of all five basic tastes. It is incredibly light and refreshing and the addition of fried shallots adds a crunch that makes the palate dance the hora.
There is a genuine care behind this cooking, an effort put forth to make Balaboosta unique. Many restaurants feature fish roe, even fish roe sauce, though to my knowledge, no restaurant has made a wasabi infused flying fish roe and used it to dress shrimp that have been wrapped in delicate strands of phyllo dough before a quick visit to the fryer. And when grilled lamb chops ($28) come to table tucked under a blanket of Persian lime sauce you can only hope it’s going to be as good as it looks. It is. The acid in the limes is the Jeremy Lin assist to Tyson Chandler’s rich, charred lamb. It’s good. Israeli good.
Perhaps the brick wall was painted white so as to act neutral, to better allow the bright food to color the room. Maybe it’s a carryover from Israeli decor, where interiors are painted white to help cool down the rooms from the hot, Mediterranean climate. Whatever the case, I’m sure it was intentional. Nothing seems to be done randomly here. The staff is kind and precise. They do everything to make you feel as if you were in their home aside from saying, “Welcome to our home.” Balaboosta is a restaurant that demands a return visit with elegant subtlety. The menu showcases a modern take on Middle Eastern food that is deeply rooted in tradition. The only thing it lacks is a bad choice.