My morning coffee runs in Midtown East looked exactly the same every single day — buildings with doormen, early bird dog-walkers exiting D’Agostino with groceries in hand and a lavish Lebanese restaurant, Al Bustan, where memories of pigging out on hummus and baba ganoush with my dad flood back.
This particular walk, though, looked different — instead of the brightly lit grand chandeliers and waiters adorned in suits serving hungry customers, all I could see was darkness. The lights were off, the tables were empty and as the days went by, stacks of mail continued to pile up on their doorstep. My fears were confirmed –– Al Bustan had closed.
In 2016, I moved to New York from Jordan, where my diet was rich with falafel, shawarma, tabbouleh and Middle Eastern food galore. My initial bouts of homesickness all concerned the food of home and, though it would never be the same, I was determined to find a place where I could indulge.
Then I discovered Al Bustan, a convenient Lebanese restaurant whose decor was as beautiful as their food was delicious. It wasn’t Jordanian, but the menu still screamed home. My dad was visiting one weekend two years ago, and nothing tempted my first-year-self more than a typical Arab dinner with him, like the ones we used to have every night. So I dragged him there only a few hours after he landed.
Our first mistake was ordering familiar foods on an empty stomach, but as one dish after the other departed from the kitchen doors, I was determined to stuff myself silly. We started with spreads, but what really hooked me were the entrees. Middle Eastern appetizers are the West’s favorite part of the cuisine, but the main stars are actually the rice-heavy dishes with flavorful sauces and perfectly seasoned meats that follow and Al Bustan had all of that.
They offered bamya, a rich, steaming tomato-okra stew served with rice and tender lamb, as well as mahshi, rice and meat flavored with aromatic Middle Eastern spices and stuffed into vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini what shocked me, though, was the Mloukhia: a thick green sauce poured atop rice and chicken, and also my all-time favorite dish that I had no idea even existed on American soil. I literally felt like I had been transported 12 hours overseas, and my homesickness faded away.
It’s time I face what I’ve been denying ever since that day I noticed their lights were switched off: the days of mloukhia madness, kibbeh consumption and dolma devouring are long gone.
Email Celina Khorma at [email protected]