When they write the tale of Sam Sifton’s failed tenure as a restaurant critic, perhaps his enthusiastic one-star review of Balaboosta will be front and center: four of the first six paragrahs were about the guests and his fantasies about them, rather than the restaurant.
After that review, for about a year, Balaboosta was always booked when I wanted to go. It remains popular, but lately crowds have thinned a bit. You no longer have to do cartwheels (or dine at inhospitable hours) to get in.
The chef, Einat Admony, serves up a pleasing mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern (non-Kosher) cuisine from her native Tel Aviv. There aren’t many great examples of this cuisine in Manhattan, a fact that elevates Balaboosta above the merely routine.
The restaurant’s name is Yiddish, and like much of that language, not exactly translatable. The rough meaning is, “perfect housewife,” which, if it were written in English, wouldn’t tell you much, except that the chef is a woman. She also has a West Village falafal restaurant called Taïm, though her blog gives the impression that most of her attention is spent here.
The menu is admirably focused, with about half-a-dozen entries each in three categories: small plates ($5–11), appetizers ($9–14), and entrées ($20–29).
The wine list — all sustainable, organic, or biodynamic — is mostly French and Italian. There are plenty of choices in the $30–50 range, so you can get out of here for less than the $100 per person that seems to be the mid-priced standard nowadays.
While you wait for the food, you can snack on fried Yuca chips (above left), which have the alarming tendency to spoil one’s appetite.
From the “small plates” part of the menu, we shared the Crispy Cauliflower ($10; below left) with currants and pine nuts, an outstanding dish.
A very good whole Branzino ($29; above right) came with grilled asparagus, a beet-citrus salad, and a lemon-dill sauce.
Sifton’s favorite dish was the boneless half chicken cooked “under a brick,” Israeli couscous with dried apricots and green leeks, and gremolata sauce. It wasn’t bad for a $22 entrée, but the chef didn’t coax as much flavor or tenderness out of the bird as the best I have had lately, the chicken at Tiny’s in Tribeca.
We had a fairly early reservation and found the home-spun space delightful before it filled up. But like so many modern downtown restaurants, the exposed brick meme is played out to the hilt. When full, later in the evening, we were shouting to hear each other, and that was with a corner table. In the middle of the room, I suspect it would have been worse.
Balaboosta is a pleasant enough place, though I would probably choose to come back for lunch or at off-peak dinner hours.
Balaboosta (214 Mulberry Street at Spring Street, NoLIta)