Wednesday, February 22, 2006

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.


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.


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.


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?

110 Waverly Place (at 6th Avenue)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

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