110 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10011
Chef Mario Batali
Executive Chef Frank Langello
Tried: May 2006
Even though I am a huge fan of Mario Batali (Molto and Iron), I was skeptical about trying Babbo. Given Mario Batali's television schedule and the proliferation of his restaurant empire, can Babbo really be any good?
The first impression that struck me when I walked in the door was a feeling of festive abundance. The restaurant was crammed full of people from the foyer to the bar to the dining area, with servers bustling along the narrow spaces in between boisterous diners, transporting wine glasses and large platters of food. There were towering flower arrangements at the bar and at the large wooden table in the center of the dining room, where wines were decanted and also set aside in between service. No one seemed to mind that the tables were so close together you were practically sitting on top of your neighbor, and every single seat along the long bar was filled with people enjoying dinner, while those standing nearby eyed their seats and plates with envy.
Upon being squeezed into our table, we received an amuse bouche of mini bruschetta, smeared with black olive tapenade and topped with crunchy whole chick peas, drizzled with sweet extra virgin olive oil and tart balsamic vinegar. Although my personal preference still leans toward the traditional tomato-basil variety, the bruschetta was crunchy, nutty, salty, and lovely. As we polished off the bruschetta, the sommelier helped us navigate through the thick binder of wines, landing on a magnum of 1997 Ciabot Berton Barolo, quite reasonably priced at $175 (around $100 retail), and it was one of those barolos whose elegant perfume is so intoxicating, I could just sit and sniff it indefinitely (but of course we drained it pretty quickly).
Babbo offers an eight-course tasting menu (six courses plus two desserts) for $70 per person and an all-pasta tasting menu (seven pasta courses plus dessert) for $64 per person. Because either tasting menu is required to be ordered by the entire table, our dining party opted to proceed a la carte. From the antipasti ($9-$16), we ordered sardines with lobster oil and caramelized fennel and a charcuterie plate consisting of lardo, olives, beef tongue, pickled hearts of fennel, and prosciutto. I am generally not a fan of beef tongue, but Babbo's version, which looked and tasted like slices of sausage, was not bad. This was also the first time I ate lardo straight. It tasted like thin slices of, well, fat but had no discernible flavor. Although the warm melting texture was pleasantly interesting, I am not sure I need to repeat that experience.
What I would like to repeat, as soon as I can get back into Babbo, are the pastas. Of the nearly twenty different pastas on the menu, ranging from $17 to $25, I was only able to sample the three-mushroom garganelli, pappardelle bolognese, and half-moon ravioli, called "lune," filled with sweet potato and sage. The elastic texture and shape of the pastas seemed to blend in with the flavors and accompaniments of each different dish until you could not tell where the pasta ended and the sauce began. The wide ribbons of chewy pappardelle captured generous amounts of the rich and meaty Bolognese sauce, with bits of carrots adding sweetness. The handkerchief-shaped garganelli pasta intertwined with the fragrant mushrooms and olive oil to create an ethereal taste that was indescribably rich and savory, not to mention perfectly matched with the earthy barolo we were drinking. The lunes, on the other hand, were sweet and delicate, with a hint of amaretti accentuating the opulence of the sweet potato and sage filling.
I was not quite as blown away by our selections among the Secondi ($23-$33). The skirt steak with asparagus and salsa verde was too salty and overpowered by the barbecue seasoning. In contrast, the osso bucco with saffron orzo and chestnut gremolata was underseasoned. Moreover, both meats were a bit tougher than I would have liked, particularly the osso bucco, which required all too much effort with a knife.
Babbo came back strong with desserts (all $12 each). The gingerbread and chocolate biscotti were well balanced in flavor and sweetness, with just enough crispy crunch to be satisfying, and the almond meringue melted in my mouth dispersing delicate and nutty almond butter flavors. The saffron panna cotta was creamy and jiggly in exactly the right way, with the rhubarb sorbet providing a delightful sweet-tart accent.
Next time, I plan to force everyone to do the pasta tasting menu with me. After reading Heat by Bill Buford, describing the madness, genius, and energy of Mario Batali, I may even want to try Del Posto.
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