Tuvia Feldman, proprietor of the popular modern Israeli restaurant, Bustan, announced the appointment of Jose Paulo Cortes as executive chef and partner.
Though Chef Cortes’ passion for cooking and his culinary education began in the Philippines, with his Spanish grandmother’s cooking and trips to the wet market with his mother to select fresh fish, meat and vegetables, a formal culinary education wasn’t available in his native country in 1998. Instead, he studied business, banking and finance in college, while still harboring his love for cooking. In 2008, Cortes moved to New York with his wife, hoping to get a job in banking, but the economic collapse made this impossible—and bad economic news turned out to be a windfall for Cortes. Instead of a banker, he became a baker.
With the help of a bread book, 12-hour days in the kitchen, hard work, and dedication, and the mentorship of Chef Efraim Nahon at Barbounia, he became a baker, and then, after only a year, the pastry chef, and eventually sous chef. Nahon taught him how to understand the flavors of the Middle East and wider ranging Mediterranean, and gave him the chance to be creative on his own. In 2014, after six years at Barbounia, Cortes left with his mentor to open Bustan.
In 2015, Nahon moved on to another venture, and Cortes was promoted. “When you fall in love with something, you want to learn everything about it,” he says. Cortes will soon embark on a research trip to Israel, Greece, and Turkey and return with new ideas and flavors for his ever-evolving menu.
The heart and hearth of the restaurant is the custom hand-built wood-fired brick taboon, a Middle Eastern oven that would be traditional except that like everything at Bustan—it has a twist that makes it unique: A rotating base that is a definite game-changer. For example, a whole branzino is fully cooked in a 360-degree turn in the oven—and it emerges moist, infused with fresh herbs on the inside, crisp and smoke-infused on the outside.
Like the eclectic Israeli cuisine that inspires it, the menu ranges around the Mediterranean with influences from French North Africa [Morocco, Tunisia], Greece, and Italy. But the international cuisine has a local focus—with market influences and fresh produce [currently apples, pears, radishes, squash].
There are many ways to enjoy a meal at Bustan—whether you come for weekend brunch, lunch [and the soon to be introduced prix fix menu], cocktails and small bites, or dinner. But one of the best ways to begin is with mazettim—a selection of “dips” served with taboon-baked focaccia: hummus, redolent of that special tahini with a touch of cumin, baba ganoush with the smoky flavor of taboon-roasted eggplant, tzatzkiki, spicy feta, and taramousalata. Each bite of any appetizer is a delight: For example, crispy phyllo-dough wrapped soft egg burek lands on a Jerusalem artichoke and chestnut cream with chanterelle mushrooms and truffle oil; squid a la plancha is tender and flavorful, served on a thin pancakes of grilled polenta withmatbucha [a spread of roasted tomatoes and bell pepper]; grilled lamb merguez is made in-house and accompanied by a stew of Moroccan-spiced lentil, white beans and spinach. Salads, all made to order, are also bursting with flavor. The chopped salad, for instance, is composed of fresh tomatoes at their peak, cucumber, red onion, radish, scallion, parsley, mint, and kalamata olives—with the flavors brought to the fore with the addition of spices such as sumac and lemon-tahini dressing that pops.
Considering the taboon and Cortes baking skills, it’s easy to understand why the flatbreads are such a hit. But the toppings take these pizza-like breads to another level: for example, house-cured pastrami smoked salmon with dill crème fraiche and kale and mushroom with ricotta, taleggio and asparagus.
Meat entrees, of course, also make the most of the taboon: grilled hangar steak with tahini-baked potato and carmelized shallots, Australian lamb chops with roasted cauliflower and spiced crushed fava beans, but there is also a lamb terracotta, baked in a bread crust that keeps the moisture in, the top is peeled back to reveal a deftly spiced ground lamb kebab, charred onion, roasted tomato, and peppers, with sumac, oregano, tahini and pine nuts. Fish entrées are turned out perfectly moist and flavorful: grilled Atlantic salmon with sweet potato and zucchini latke, but there are also other not to be missed options such as braised boneless short ribs with parsnip and mushroom barley risotto and homemade ricotta gnocchi with wild mushrooms and sage.
For dessert, Kanafeh is made with rosewater syrup infused shredded phyllo filled with ricotta and pistachios with honey-lavender gelato. The Turkish sundae is a wonderful invention: vanilla gelato topped with crisped rice, caramelized nuts, and shredded halva.
Cocktails are designed with the same aesthetic as the food: fig lemonade is built from house-infused fig vodka, St. Germain and ginger beer and the lavender martini is made with gin, lavender and Lillet. The beverage program also includes six beers on tap, six bottled beers [and seasonal selections], non-alcoholic options [juices and nectars, sparkling fruit soda, ginger beer] and a comprehensive wine by the glass, half bottle and bottle selection.