On the list of under-represented cuisines in New York City, Lebanese must be pretty close to the top. The Zagat Guide lists just three Lebanese restaurants, of which I’ve tried only one—the over-produced Ilili.
Missing from the Zagat Guide is Balade, which opened in the East Village a year ago. Despite a lack of critical attention (not a single pro review that I can find), it isn’t doing badly—at least on a Friday evening, when it was about 3/4ths full by 8:00 p.m. Nevertheless, it seeks (and in my view deserves) more attention.
(Before I proceed, in the interests of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I dined at Balade at the publicist’s invitation and did not pay for my meal.)
The name Balade means “fresh” in Lebanese. It’s an apt description, as just about everything is made in-house. The one drawback is that many customers are likely to mis-pronounce the name: roughly, it’s bah-lah-day.
The menu rambles a bit, and in its noble eagerness to offer something for everyone, takes a while to parse. There are six categories, plus sides and desserts. Many items have askerisked references to a glossary on the front page. If I were up to me, I’d ditch the glossary and explain each item where it appears.
Outside of a handful of entrées in the high teens (just one over $20), almost everything is below $15, and many are below $10. As is often the case on menus that avoid the term “appetizer” or “entrée,” it can be difficult to tell how much food you’re getting. I wound up with two appetizers and a dessert. I enjoyed everything, but if I were ordering again, I might have chosen a more substantial second course.
The meal starts with warm house-made bread (below left) and a wonderful spiced olive oil for dipping.
There’s an ample selection of vegetarian dishes throughout the menu, including more than half of the eighteen Mezza (starters). They’re $5–9 individually, or $16 for a selection of four vegetarian items. In the photo (above right), I had (clockwise from the top):
1) Tabouleh (parsley salad with burghul wheat, chopped onions, tomatoes, olive oil, and fresh lemon juice)
2) Hummus (chickpea puree with ground sesame seeds and lemon juice)
3) Warak Einab (stuffed grape leaves with chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, and rice)
4) Labneh with Toum (cream cheese made from Greek yogurt infused with Lebanese thyme and crushed garlic)
There was an additional serving of bread, for spreading, but in the end I decided just to eat off the plate. The Labneh with Toum (nine o’clock in the photo) was deliciously creamy, the Tabouleh (twelve o’clock) a good, spicy contrast to the others. I felt journalistically obligated to try the hummus, and although it was just fine, I think the more unusual dishes are a better bet.
There are menu categories for sandwiches, or sandweechet ($6–10), Lebanese Pizza, or Manakeesh ($6.50–12) and “Pita Pitza” ($10–12). There’s also a “Taste of Lebanon” for $10 that offers three mini-pizzas, and as I was eager to know what Lebanese pizza would be like, I ordered that.
In the photo (below left), clockwise starting from the 10 o’clock position, the selection was:
1) Jabneh (Lebanese white cheese)
2) Zaatar (wild dried thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and olive oil)
3) Lahme Baajin (seasoned ground beef, diced onions and tomatoes)
The dough was thin and baked crisp. Of the three, I liked the spicy Lahme Baajin the best. The Zaatar was interesting, but a bit dry for my taste, and the cheese was pedestrian.
Dessert was flawless: first, two half-scoops of ice cream (above right): pistachio and a creamy native Lebanese flavor with a name I don’t recall. And then the Kenafa ($5; below left): baked ricotta cheese topped with bread crumbs, syrup, and crushed pistachio. This is a wonderful dessert: if you eat nothing else here, you must save room for it.
Lebanese White Coffee ($2.50; above right) is not coffee at all, but uncaffeinated rose water, more like tea, served with a small cup and a personal-size mini-kettle—an excellent way to close.
I can’t opine on the service, since the visit was a pre-arranged comp. Patronage ranged from large groups to solo diners at the bar, and as far as I could tell they were getting the attention they deserved. The 55-seat space is comfortable but un-fancy, in a way that matches the neighborhood.
The term “Neighborhood Lebanese Restaurant” doesn’t really exist in New York, but if it did, Balade would be the model. It’s inexpensive and casual, the food is well made, and there are enough choices for every mood and appetite.
Balade (201 First Avenue between 12th & 13th Streets, East Village)