“The hostess said it’ll be a few minutes, but there are tables finishing up. We should have a drink at the bar,” he suggested. I obliged.
The space itself felt eclectic and fresh; a colorful, luxe departure from hummus joints past. At the very least, these seemed like feelings a diner would have upon sitting inside of the restaurant, at a table, amidst said eclecticism and freshness. As for us, we never made it past the bar.
“We have your table,” she coldly notified, gesturing toward the front of the restaurant, where a lone two-seat high top stuffed between the bar, the door, and the hostess’ desk could barely be seen amongst the next wave of swarming wannabe patrons.
“Nope. We will wait for a real table.” I said. When you make a reservation, you deserve a real table.
“Actually, that’s my favorite table in the whole restaurant,” chimed in the bartender, going for the hard sell.
“I am sure it is,” I replied.
“No, really, it is. I have no incentive to lie to you. Like, why would I lie about that?”
Things were about to get personal. I let out an empty-bellied laugh; half disbelieving, half excited about where the evening was headed. Dining drama isn’t usually so available on the Upper West Side.
8:15 p.m. “Would you two like a refill?”
“Yes, if they’re on you,” I clarified, unwilling to exhibit more patronage until it would be clear we’d actually be eating dinner that night.
The drinks were, indeed, on her. Either we matched her level of snark, gaining some sort of street cred, or she was starting to feel bad for us.
8:30 p.m., and after two drinks, our liquid courage sent us back to the hostess’ desk, demanding the table or a manager. Either would work. The hostess scolded that we turned down our table, and now she wouldn’t know when another one would be available. Manager it was.
“I apologize for your wait,” he started off. So far, so good.
“I understand you did not want that table we offered you in the front.” Oh boy. “See, the system does this thing when you book on Open Table. It books you at that table.” Wow. I never knew there was a seating caste system based on method of reservation.
Liquid courage swelled; we argued our point; manager continued justifying; we continued arguing; manager conceded slightly; manager ordered dips.
8:45 p.m. I don’t know how it happened, but I will blame it on the wine, which had since magically appeared in my glass once again. I tried leaving twice and refusing to eat twice, but somehow ended up sitting at the bar, shoveling warm, fresh-baked focaccia bread with a trio of dips – tzatziki, spicy feta, and smoked eggplant – into my mouth like nachos grande during college football season.
They wore us down. Like a bad date, our once-too-cheeky bartender began to appear rather charming after the third glass of wine. Although I first refused to eat dinner at the bar, it was getting late, we were getting sauced, and all matters of principle were too far lost to stand by. We were never getting our table. We had to eat.
9:20 p.m. We enjoyed a vibrant salad, chopped with the usual suspects of tomato, cucumber, olives, red onion, etc., and tossed in lemon vinaigrette. The newer wave of offerings included a lamb shawarma “bun” with sweet and spicy tahini, which fused together Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines in a rather harmonious way.
Our main dish of zucchini-wrapped sea scallops was not as successful. A large tomato “bread pudding” reminiscent of a bland high-holiday kugel eclipsed the three tiny scallops provided. Although pan-seared well, the scallops themselves included a hidden surprise: half toothpicks, lost inside, presumably there to hold the zucchini in place. I found the first one when it almost shot through my cheek. I couldn’t help but ask our bartender-turned-waitress whether they were supposed to be there.
“I think so.”
9:50 p.m. Almost two-and-a-half hours into the experience, the manager sent a peace offering of dessert wines and a shredded halva and ice cream sundae. With another dollop of ice cream to cut through the dryness of the halva, it would have been wonderful.
10:05 p.m. We received our bill. Despite the perpetual issues, it appeared that Bustan, as a new restaurant in this neighborhood that so desperately needs new restaurants, did the first right thing and took care of our libations and dessert. Perhaps the wine did the talking when I acknowledged on the walk home that someday, after significant polishing time, I would consider going back.
But I will be sure to make my reservation by phone.