Mulberry Street, a tree-lined stretch lined with avant-garde boutiques and charming red brick facades, just may be one of New York City's most charming. Situated in trendy SoHo, the neighborhood is hardly lacking in the restaurant department but, while there are a few gems, I find it safe to say that quantity prevails over quality. To put it more gently, there are not too many eateries that I would consider "destination worthy."
That was, until I dined at Balaboosta. Middle Eastern and Israeli small plates (though there are full-sized entrees, too) line the menu at Einat Admony's second successful restaurant venture (she also has Taïm which, arguably, is home to the city's best falafel).
Balaboosta's space could best be described as cozy, rustic, and lively. Exposed brick walls, a tiny open kitchen, bookshelves lined with wine bottles and tchotchkes, and dim lighting anoint the interior. Upon seating, Moira and I were handed food and drink menus as our server simultaneously listed that particular evening's specials, which were also handwritten on a chalkboard conveniently hung above our table.
A gratis bowl of addictive seasoned crisps (God knows what they were made of, and shame on me for being too distracted to ask!) arrived with our beverages. Along with my red sangria, I ordered a glass of homemade mint lemonade. Double-fisting never tasted this delicious. Instead of ordering separate entrées, Moira and I chose to share an array of small plates.
Balaboosta's smoked eggplant bruschetta: Hugging the top of a crunchy, super buttery slice of toasted bread was a thick schmear of garlicky, creamy, smoked eggplant dip. A lawn of emerald green parsley shreds crowned the bruschetta.
While I typically take my salads with extra dried cherries, candied pecans, blue cheese, and some sort of creamy dressing — I have to give Balaboosta credit for creating a colorful plate of lightly dressed greens. Citrus segments, thinly sliced radish, and roasted squash were dressed in a tangy blood orange vinaigrette.
Falafel-wrapped meatballs: This dish was the turning point — the moment, during the meal, when I fell in love. What appears to be falafel-on-a-stick is actually a falafel-wrapped meatball on a stick. And this isn't just any falafel, it's the famous product that put Taim and Balaboosta on the culinary map! A crunchy, flavor roller coaster of exterior falafel gives way to a meatball that is so perfectly cooked and juicy that you can't help but wonder, 'How in the hell did they pull this off?" A parsley oil topped tahini sauce proved to be the ultimate accompaniment.
Fried olives and organic labne, harissa oil: A small bowl is filled with organic labne (a Middle Eastern yogurt/cheese), a thin drizzle of harissa oil, and topped with the most perfect, golden, fried green olives. Long toothpicks/sticks join the dish as olive dipping utensils.
The presentation of the hummus and pita was more pleasing that its actual taste. While there was nothing fundamentally wrong, I found the pita bread to be on the dry side and could not figure out why the hummus was served in a guacamole-esque mortar bowl.
While Balaboosta's falafel-wrapped meatballs had me falling in love, it was the "crispy cauliflower" dish that changed my life. Literally. I was so taken aback when our server informed us that the cauliflower was the most ordered — and raved about — item on the menu. I mean, wasn't this the crap that our mothers forced us to eat by threatening, "No dessert until you finish your veggies?"
I couldn't figure out why this tasteless, texturally awkward and, frankly, gnarly vegetable was so popular. That was...until I hesitatingly tasted it for myself. Florets of cauliflower were dredged in crack — a delicate batter, fried, and then tossed with sweet currant berries and earthy pine nuts. Sure, this may sound like an odd combo, but take it from a former hater: This is one of New York City's most delicious and unique dishes. I would return to Balaboosta for the cauliflower alone.