Barbounia

Sometimes I think I’m kind of a grouch when it comes to eating. Why can’t I just enjoy a meal, especially when it’s free (as my meal at Barbounia was)? I think i often set my expectations too high. I wasn’t anticipating much when I first saw the menu at Barbounia, but then I read Frank Bruni’s one star review and I thought maybe there was hope for the meal after all. Unfortunately, the bread and olives brought out at the beginning of the lunch were the best parts. The bread was still warm from the oven, and crusted with sea salt and rosemary, and they brought out plenty more at our request. Look at those greedy hands reaching for the bread!

Barbounia bills itself as an “Eastern Mediterranean” restaurant, which is their way of saying that they’re not an Italian restaurant. Most of the menu reflects this Greek and Turkish influence, with everything from mousaka to kebabs on offer (and yet they also offer gnocchi). As part of the prix fixe lunch you are offered a choice of Mediterranean dips (hummus, roasted eggplant, etc.), a salad, and an entree. I went for the roasted eggplant, which was smoky but otherwise completely tasteless. I preferred to eat the bread on its own.

Then came my beet salad. There were only about a half dozen pieces of roasted beet in the whole bowl, and the dressing was over-seasoned. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a salad that was too salty before. Other people in my party got the Israeli salad (chopped up tomato, cucumber, and onion) and said it was great, so maybe I made a bad choice.

I have a weakness for ordering the strangest sounding thing on the menu. Barbounia offers falafel, but I figured I could get felafel anywhere. More interesting sounding was the sambusak, which the menu describes as a “Mediterranean calzone.” I suppose calzones aren’t Mediterranean? The sambusak is available in two varieties — one with swiss chard, feta, onion and jalapeno, the other with potatoes, mushrooms, and goat cheese. Potatoes in a calzone? I was sold.

It was underwhelming. The three elements did not blend at all, so I got mouthfuls of molten goat cheese, or earthy mushrooms, or potato puree, but not all together. The crust was crispy, with a nice chew, but nothing was seasoned properly. One of my friends got the falafel, and she declared it wonderful. She said she’d never had a falafel like it before.

I don’t know what to say about Barbounia. I’ll give them a pass on the spotty service, because we were a large party and they didn’t seem to know what to do with us. All I can speak about is the food, which was disappointing. It was consistent in that there were consistent problems with the seasoning, which is such a basic part of cooking. If you decide to go, I’d advise doing the opposite of what you parents told you growing up — fill up on the free bread at the beginning of the meal.

Barbounia — 250 Park Avenue South

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