Stern Eats Balade
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 8, 2012 12:11
I am very pleased to have experienced the beginnings of something that is very near and dear my heart and stomach: Stern Eats, the club-to-be for food. The group, which has been up and running on Facebook for over a month and has served as a forum to discuss restaurant recommendations and organize food outings, held its first formal event last week at Balade.
Balade is a Lebanese restaurant in the East Village, located on 1st Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets. The décor, with its mix of wood, Lebanese motif tiles and brick, evokes an atmosphere that is a blend of traditional and modern, old world meets new. Of particular note were the glass water pitchers, which were designed to look like traditional clay pots that can be used to store water and keep it cooled despite the sometimes hot Mediterranean climate.
Thanks to the efforts of Liz Batsche (FT-MBA1), Marc Khoury (FT-MBA1) and Rotem Sol (FT-MBA1), Balade provided the attendees with an all you can eat spread and a couple drinks for under $50 and managed to draw a crowd of fifteen on short notice.
Before the mezze were even brought out, dinner kicked off with a small, round, warm, pocketed bread that soaked up the za’atar-heavy olive oil that was provided. For those unfamiliar with za’atar, it is a Middle Eastern spice blend typically made from thyme, marjoram, oregano, sesame seeds and salt, although the preparation varies from region to region. It matches well with olive oil and breads, and although you are unlikely to find it in your typical market, you can purchase several different varieties of za’atar at Kalustyan’s in Murray Hill.
The mezze kicked off with bowls of hummus and baba ghanoush, both of which were freshly made, creamy yet not completely pureed such that you could enjoy different sensations as the dips passed along your tongue. Next out were two traditional Middle Eastern salads, tabbouleh and fattoush. Tabbouleh is made from cracked bulgur mixed with parsley, tomatoes, mint and lemon, and although I found Balade’s version too heavy on the lemon juice and light on the mint, the Lebanese and Egyptian Sternies at the dinner felt that it was just right. Fattoush, made of a typical base of lettuce and tomatoes, is comprised of more traditional ingredients, although it comes topped with crispy baked pita slices and ground sumac, giving the dish a distinctive texture and flavor. Up next were the warak einab, the Lebanese version of doldamas, or stuffed grape leaves, and makanek, beef sausages. The grape leaves were served warm and, in addition to rice, stuffed with tomatoes and chickpeas, which gave them a different flavor from most other ones I have tried. They were also not as densely packed as most, which was a nice touch. Overall these were very good and a definite recommend if you stop by Balade. The sausages were also nice; not too oily and spiced, like a beef version of merguez. Finally up were the falafel, which need no introduction. These were made with a combination of chickpeas and fava beans, which gave them a softer filling than most, but not as soft as those made with only favas, and the shell was a crispier than it needed to be.
For the main dishes we were greeted by two different options. One was a mixed grill platter, made of spiced grilled chicken and lamb, beef kofta (ground up and mixed with spices) and vegetables served over a bed of rice pilaf. Everything on the platter was cooked till tender but not dry and the pilaf, likely cooked with chicken stock, was delicious on its own. The other, and more interesting plate, was a lahme bajin, or lahmajun, which could be most closely compared to pizza dough topped with ground beef mixed with finely chopped onions and tomatoes. Although the crust on this lahme bajin had more rise in it and was chewier than that of your average New York pizza – except that of the Sicilian at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend, which it closely resembles – that is not a bad thing and I wound up eating most of a pie by myself. If you have never tried this before it is worth the experience.
Unfortunately after all the nice experiences that we had for most of the meal, dessert took a turn for the worse and ended the evening on a low note. The baklava only had one thick layer of chopped nuts toward the bottom, as opposed to being evenly layered throughout the phyllo, and the syrup had been poured on while still too hot, which led to its settling toward the bottom of the dish. The result was a pastry that was too dry and tough at the top and sticky and rich at the bottom. The mouhallabie, a milk pudding topped with loosely chopped pistachios, was mostly insipid and, served by itself, too airy to appreciate.
Overall the meal at Balade was good, and sharing it with good company made the experience an enjoyable one. If I were to rate the restaurant on a scale of one to five I would fall around three-and-a-half. If you are in the mood for a nice Middle Eastern meal near campus and are curious to try the lahme bajin or any of the other items mentioned in this review by all means give it a shot, but save room for dessert for somewhere else.