Friday, January 2, 2009

Babbo: Surpasses the Hype

Things I don’t like about Babbo:
The reservation line. Call any hour of the day, and I defy you not to get a busy signal. Once you actually get through, prepare to hear a long recording from a pleasant woman with a British accent. Press 3 to bypass this. Press 1 to bypass more stuff. Then prepare to hold again, whilst you listen to nice Opera music. Right when you’re ready to hang up, a reservationist will breathily say “Babbo, please hold,” and the Opera music will resume. When he or she returns to the phone, you will be told that any time you wish to eat during the next month is already fully booked, but perhaps you would like to trek to the city, wait outside at 5:00 pm, in the hopes of securing one of the six tables Babbo keeps open every night for people like you (and celebrities, I suspect)?

Things I like about Babbo:
Virtually everything else.

It continues to amaze me how Mario Batali, after achieving celebrity chef status, is still a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. (Ever notice how sometimes chefs get real popular, but then their food suffers? I'm not picking on anyone, but BAM!) No one doubts that this man still cooks, loves to cook, and loves to eat. No matter how much you see this jolly man, who perpetually wears shorts in cold weather and ties his long orange hair back in a ponytail, in book stores, on television, competing with Iron Chefs, or traipsing through the Spanish countryside with none other than Gwyneth Paltrow, this guy still finds the time to get it done.

Bill Buford wrote about his first meeting with Batali in his awesome, hilarious book Heat, a book which details Buford’s metamorphosis from editor at The New Yorker to unpaid kitchen slave at Batali’s then 3-star New York Times rated Babbo, an idea cooked up by none other than Batali himself during a dinner party at Buford’s apartment (their first meeting, too!). The passage that sums up Batali in a nutshell describes him at the party, so excited to slice lardo and deposit it on each guests tongue, whispering that the only true way to appreciate the taste of pig fat is to let it fully dissolve--so as to understand its intensity, and detect all the elements of the pig’s diet, one by one. He continues to shine at the same dinner party until 3 am, all the while never sitting still, his energy contagious, imparting his knowledge and love of food.

Buford then chronicles his hilarious “internship” at Babbo.

And that’s why, despite that reservation line, I found myself outside Babbo’s door at 4:45 on a Friday in September, determined to claim one of those six tables. My guest was coming straight from work with a strict warning not to be late, and I had just finished up a seminar for work that had ended early. I was the first one there, but wasn’t taking any chances, positioning myself firmly next to the outdoor menu. Sure enough, at 5:00 pm, a line began to form. The next woman, a young, pretty Korean girl named Youngchae, was in town for the week, and seemed curious as to why I was standing outside of the restaurant all by myself. I had some time to kill, so told her all of the stuff I’ve mentioned above. She listened, looked at her watch, shrugged her shoulders and got in line behind me. Youngchae is also a foodie, and while on line, detailed some of her trips, including a stellar brunch at Aquavit, and her desire to visit the dining hotspot of 2009, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko.

We bonded, so it only seemed natural that when Youngchae was informed that Babbo does not seat tables for one, my guest and I invited her to dine with us. And so it was, at 5:30 sharp, that the three of us entered the much-hyped Babbo.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I sat down, but Babbo sort of looks like any other restaurant. Our table was near the bar and front door, and I think it took some time to realize that everything wasn’t going to be plated in gold, or something. The setting is nice, comfortable, but even at 5:30, I could tell the restaurant would get loud, and the crowd at the bar would trickle over to our table. But I liked it; it reminded me of Batali’s personality: let the good times roll. I also appreciate the wide variety of music that night, from The Doors to Nirvana.

Once seated, our servers brought out a complimentary garbanzo bruschetta which was very delicious. The balsamic vinegar was richer and thicker than I’m used to.

We decided on the Pasta Tasting Menu, for $69 each. Here’s what we got:

Black Tagliatelle with parsnips and pancetta
Casunzei with Poppy Seeds
Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati
Domingo’s Pyramids with Passato di Pomodoro
Pappardelle Bolognese
Frittelle di Caprino with Warm Honey
Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta with Licorice
Citrus Polenta Cake with Olive Oil Gelato

I’ve never had a tasting menu like Babbo’s before. The portions on each dish could be regular-sized entrees. Somewhere around the Pappardelle Bolognese, one of our servers heard an audible groan. “Yes,” she chuckled. “This is a BATALI tasting menu!” A note about the service here: Semi-formal, absolutely unintrusive, knowledgeable, and always appearing when we were ready, never a moment too early or late.

I don’t think I’ll describe each dish for the simple fact that everything ordered was excellent. If I had to pick a stand-out dish, it was the Casunzei with Poppy Seeds, a ravioli with roasted beets and potatoes. I dream about that dish. Batali knows how to make pasta, and he also knows how to mix and match flavors (olive oil gelato? Yes.) Our meal lasted from 5:30 until 9:30 at night, and our table was continually eating. If that’s wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.

For the final dessert, only I got the citrus polenta cake; it’s customary at Babbo for a different dessert to be presented to each guest, something the pastry chef likes to do. We also had a chocolate pistachio cake at our table, and some sort of flan – both delicious, but the polenta cake was my favorite. It reminded me of lemon cornbread.

I will definitely be back to do the regular tasting menu, because Babbo certainly lives up to the hype. It might even surpass it.

110 Waverly Pl
(between Avenue Of The Americas & Mac Dougal St)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 777-0303


  1. I still rave about this meal to my friends. Though they're pretty surprised when I tell them that Babbo plays Nirvana! =)

  2. hey - I'm loving your blog....I got here via facebook. Babbo sounds amazing and now I have to pick up "Heat". keep it up! =)