Ready for more Sanford love? This time it's for Buster's Bistro – a laid-back Belgian gastrobar that's got the sort of conviviality a Jean-Claude Van Damme dropkick convention couldn't pay to replicate. Beer, naturally, has a lot to do with it. There are 18 Belgian brews on tap and scores more (everything from Trappists and Abbeys to lambics and quads) available by the bottle, with branded goblets, snifters and tulip glasses for each. Or so it seems.
Clearly, owner Paul "Paulii" Buster is proud of Belgium's beer culture – which, like Mexican cuisine, Turkish coffee and the art of Neapolitan "pizzaiuolo," has been placed on UNESCO's oddly named "List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity." To accompany all those fine suds, Buster recently brought on journeyman chef Dalton Lacey (Cozee Café, Brooklyn Coffee Shop and Tennessee Truffle) to take charge of the menu. I have to say, it's a little mind-boggling to me how "The Mussels From Brussels" isn't included as an item – I mean talk about your lost opportunities. But then dishes like shawarma ($11) and tikka masala curry ($12) appear on the menu, jolting one's expectations with a roundhouse kick. Playing up the confluence of immigrant food in Belgium, perhaps?
Then there's the poutine ($9), which kinda resembles actual poutine, but with thick-cut frites, "melty cheese" and filet tips weighted down in a tan-brown gravy. Purists and card-carrying Canucks may scoff at the assemblage, but you can't really knock the taste. Those frites, employing the blanch-and-fry technique, were some of the best I've had in recent memory, with a crisp casing enveloping a soft, almost fluffy, core.
A healthy serving of the frites come with the vol-au-vent ($14) as well – a somewhat deconstructed vol-au-vent, that is. The pastry, for one, was a puffed square, vertically challenged and slathered with morsels of roasted chicken and meatballs in a béchamel sauce with mushrooms. I hoped for a little more effort and composition in the dish – like a circular puff pastry with a rise sufficient enough to be stuffed, not messily sauced over and on the verge of succumbing to sog. Still, the flavors all seemed to work, just as they did with the poutine. You won't have to work very hard to polish off the luscious short rib carbonnade ($19) plonked atop mashed potatoes. Of note is the sauce, resulting from a slow braise of the beef with beer (Belgian, naturellment), mustard and spiced bread – in this case, gingerbread. It's hearty and gastropubby and your St. Bernardus Prior 8 ($7) will thank you for it.
Hearing the words "our waffles aren't made in house" came like a butterfly kick to the chops. Seriously? Was the Peeing Boy silhouetted on the menu taking the pis out of the dessert offerings? Is Buster's getting premade waffles from Sysco? If they are, they're pretty darned good, I have to say – the sugar waffles ($6) in particular. Crisp and airy with pearl sugar baked in and served with strawberries and whipped cream, they're a little on the sweet side but, hey, this is dessert. Should Belgian chocolate strike your fancy, there's a so-so mousse ($6) made in-house and flavored with a dash of amaretto.
It certainly won't spoil your sentiment toward the restaurant, because there's just something about Buster's – and Paulii knows it. He's worked hard on improving the quality of food and drink over the years, all the while maintaining a vibe that's as charming as it is chummy, and that's no easy task. The restaurant game is a constant battle and, buster, it's a bloodsport.