The Pita Principle
The road to hellish restaurants is paved with good intentions, smiling countenances, sunny dispositions, and a sincerity on the part of proprietors. Al Bustan isn't hellish, but the Lebanese eatery also isn't anything more than just another ethnic eating place owned by people who want to serve exemplary renditions of their nation's cuisine without having the professional know-how to pull it off.
It's really not that complicated: If you start with warm fresh breads, proceed with fresh appetizers and entrées, and cap things off with fresh desserts and fresh coffee, then no matter how amateurish your menu or clumsy your cooking style might be, the cuisine will possess a pristine quality that might just prove pleasing to patrons. On the other hand, lack of freshness projects either carelessness or a willingness to pridelessly peddle whatever is around. Take Al Bustan's pita, which was not stale, moldy, or offensive. It also wasn't fresh or noteworthy in any way. A similar trait defines much of the fare here, as well as the two inelegant dining rooms with smudgy white-paneled walls.
There are some 30 hot and cold appetizers that may be ordered à la carte or by groupings: any 5 noted with an asterisk for $18; any 8 at all for $27. Old friends hummus, falafel, baba ghannouj, and tabbouleh are all on hand, but Al Bustan also introduces less-familiar Lebanese favorites, such as safiha, small pastries filled with cinnamon-and-clove-spiced meat minced with onions, tomatoes, and pine nuts; fatayer bisabanekh, featuring the same pastry dough wrapped around spinach, onions, and walnuts; moujadara, a small casserole of lentils cooked with cracked wheat, onions, and olive oil; shanklish, a tart, crumbly, feta-like cheese rolled in spices; and ful medames, a dish of fava beans baked with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil -- the only starter that sparkled. Even the carbonated water we ordered lacked effervescence; it turned out to be a nonfizzy generic brand with the sort of chintzy label that invites suspicions of unscrupulous profiteers filling bottles from kitchen sinks.
Entrées are categorized into "meats and chicken," "fish and seafood," and "chef's specialties," the last made up of a half-dozen choices for those daring to leave the shawarmas and shish kebabs behind. Moulukheh, a heartily seasoned chicken broth stocked with steamed greens and strips of boiled chicken breast, was one such specialty and a pleasing one at that, but overpriced at $12.75; it is, after all, just a bowl of chicken soup, even if it does come with a side of nicely spiced rice (the grain, fittingly, was plain white).
Lamb shish kebab, touted as "tender cubes of marinated lamb skewered and grilled," contained tender cubes of unmarinated, barely seasoned, soft and flabby lamb, with no crisp or sizzle from the grill. A single square each of red and green pepper, four snow peas, shredded carrots, and rice accompanied the kebab, as did a dish of vinegar with minced onions and a basket of stale pita fragments (old pitas never die -- they become "pita chips").
Al Bustan used to be in North Beach under the name Al Amir. The road to their new digs seems to have been paved with good intentions, but so far the change of scenery hasn't provided much in the way of a fresh perspective.
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