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Babbo - Mario Batali's Italian - New York

Babbo - Mario Batali's Italian - New York
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  • Babbo - Mario Batali's Italian - New York

    Post #1 - February 22nd, 2006, 11:06 pm
    Post #1 - February 22nd, 2006, 11:06 pm Post #1 - February 22nd, 2006, 11:06 pm
    Babbling Babbo New York City Entry #73

    Stepping over the threshold at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship restaurant is to be placed in the midst of a scrum. The obstacles at the narrow entrance demand bravery and resolve. Yet, such layout conveys the message that Babbo in its bar and beyond is a happening place. Even when seated, the sounds from the front meld with the background music to create a sense of occasion. Babbo is a restaurant that is shaken, not stirred.

    The Babbo space is known to older New Yorkers as the long-standing home of the Coach House, one of the more elegant examples of mid-century dining. The decor has been updated, and is quite handsome, although it is one of so many Manhattan restaurants where the flower arrangement is King. By the end of the evening as the ruggers at the bar decamped, it was actually a restful environment at which to dine. Service was efficient and helpful throughout the evening - servers, sommelier, and runners.

    And yet what is one to make of the food. What does one tell an energetic B-plus student why there is no gold star today. With the exception of a failed dessert, the dishes were in the upper quintile: 650 culinary SATs. Yet, not a single dish proved astonishing, although the combination of ingredients - as well as Mario's buzz - indicated that this was the goal. True, my companions and I - tough graders all - did not assay the Tasting Menus (either pasta or "traditional"). Ignore the buzz, and this is a respectable and amiable restaurant that uses Italian ingredients (and Italian labels) to persuade diners that something "big" is at work. Yet, at the end the dishes are neither transcendent creations nor sublime Italian renditions.

    Our amuse modeled the evening: a plate of herbed chickpeas on toast. The dish was unpolished but flavorful. It was not the kind of amuse that shows off the culinary virtuosity of a chef, but a dish that indicates that the meal will jolt one's tongue.

    Antipasto was Warm Lamb's Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a Three Minute Egg. I had recently enjoyed a home-made and perfectly prepared lamb's tongue served with a curried mayonnaise. Babbo's version was busy by comparison. I finished the dish with gusto, but the pungent vinegar buzz was excessive. While I did espy chanterelles, a portion of the mushrooms were other varietals. As a starter, it was a gratifying choice; one completed with a smile, but slightly out of balance.

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    As Primo (Pasta) our table shared "Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles." I didn't smell many truffles, although at $21 tartufo chunks were not in the bargain. The problem was less the slight tubers and not the al dente ravioli, but the flavor excess of a mix of cheek and liver. Babbo is not a restaurant that serves quiet dishes. This dish was as loud and rough as the bar scene. Its robustness was to my liking, but its brusque quality suggests a kitchen that shouts rather than whispers.

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    As Secondi, I selected Prawns with White Beans, Leeks, and Spicy Mint Oil. The quartet of prawns were glorious and architectural, and grilled expertly. The plate was newly-minted. I grinned at the mixture of mint and heat, even if the rather mushy beans seemed odd strangers. The plate was the highpoint of the evening, even if its flavors were as jagged as those before.

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    The happier Dolce was Babbo's Chocolate Hazelnut Cake with Orange Sauce and Hazelnut Gelato. Even Batali's harshest critics acknowledge that his staff is skilled at Gelati, and the Hazelnut Gelato was no exception. My bite of Chocolate Cake was rich and moist, and surely satisfying for those who are cocoa nuts.

    Tasting Gelato di Castagne (Chestnut Gelato) with Bigue (pastry shells) and Chestnut Honey, I imagined a terrorist had infiltrated the kitchen. This was one of the least appealing bites I have eaten. Something must have gone wrong, given that the server had waxed poetic about the dish. It tasted as if someone had ladled Campari - or perhaps Listerine - over the Gelato. With a little experimentation it was clear that the culprit was the sauce (the chestnut gelato was, of course, first-rate). Our server at first was as mystified as I, but eventually the good sport inquired of the kitchen, and came out holding a bottle of Chestnut Honey, noting cheerfully "It's either that or poison." Good choice. The honey tasted as nasty as the dessert. Our mystery was solved. Why innocent diners were treated to this odd concoction without warning remains Mario's mystery or perhaps that of his Pastry Chef Gina DePalma. Given that it is a recent addition to a beloved list of sweets, it will surely be trundled off to dessert purgatory.

    To deny the pleasures of Babbo would be unfair to Mario, Joe Bastianich - and their Executive Chef Frank Langello - and - God Knows! - Joe and Mario have enough real estate problems without diners piling on. Still, one has to wonder whether, despite the hoo-hah, Batali is the Italian chef of his generation. Iron chef he may be, but can Babbo rise above the babbling of a bombastic publicity machine?

    Babbo
    110 Waverly Place (at 6th Avenue)
    Manhattan (Greenwich Village)
    212-777-0303

    http://www.vealcheeks.blogspot.com
  • Post #2 - February 23rd, 2006, 9:22 am
    Post #2 - February 23rd, 2006, 9:22 am Post #2 - February 23rd, 2006, 9:22 am
    I dined at Babbo last May and, unlike you, did find it transcendent. Perhaps it was the tasting menu, perhaps a less-jaded palate, perhaps just a better day in the kitchen.

    Nothing we had on the tasting menu appeared to aim for the "zowie" factor your dishes had - it was merely simple ingredients prepared perfectly. The only dish with zing was the pre-dessert: a bergamot sorbet with bittersweet chocolate. I could have eaten a triple scoop of that and died happy right then and there, but I couldn't leave that kind of paperwork to Mario in good conscience.
    What is patriotism, but the love of good things we ate in our childhood?
    -- Lin Yutang
  • Post #3 - February 23rd, 2006, 9:30 am
    Post #3 - February 23rd, 2006, 9:30 am Post #3 - February 23rd, 2006, 9:30 am
    Our table didn't wish to opt for the tasting menu, and that could have been a mistake. But I think that my assessment was more or less shared by the others at our table - some with palates that were less jaded than mine, to be sure!

    I hope that my review came off as calibrated. This was not a failed meal (and I have had a few of them), just not a meal that was transcendent - though I remember the Prawns with increasing fondness, and the Chestnut Honey with a shudder. On a four-star system, Babbo is about a two - and Michelin was just in giving Mario a star.
  • Post #4 - March 29th, 2006, 12:27 pm
    Post #4 - March 29th, 2006, 12:27 pm Post #4 - March 29th, 2006, 12:27 pm
    My husband and I went to Babbo last November when we were in NYC for a conference, and it was a truly incredible dining experience! I had posted here before our trip, wondering what I might get seeing as I don't like organ meats, seafood, or shrooms. We had a 10pm reservation but stood at the doors as they opened and got one of the tables at the front at 5pm. We were right across from the bar, and it was a little cramped, but the atmosphere was lively, and the guys at the table next to us were great fun. :) They ordered the pasta tasting menu so we got to hear about all of their dishes and wines as well.

    I didn't like many of the ingredients on the tasting menus, and my husband isn't into wine, so we each ordered an antipasti, primi, secondi, and dolci. You can see the photos at http://www.gryfalia.com/photos/newyork/index.html. Babbo photos start about 3/4 of the way down and the names of the dishes are listed.

    Our server was friendly and attentive, and that helped make it a very enjoyable evening. Note that this was the most "upscale" restaurant we have been to, so we definitely do not have jaded palates. ;) It was a meal I will never forget.
  • Post #5 - July 18th, 2006, 6:12 pm
    Post #5 - July 18th, 2006, 6:12 pm Post #5 - July 18th, 2006, 6:12 pm
    We were just at Babbo this past Saturday night. It was very good. I'd definitely call it comparable to Vinci here in Chicago. A bit more polished service, a broader wine list, but similar dishes, done very well. We enjoyed it a lot, but didn't find it transcendant.
    Leek

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