Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Restaurant 55: Babbo

Clockwise from top left: Grilled Quail, Roast Potatoes, Sorbet and Gelato Tasting, Maccheroni alla Chitarra.

LOCATION: 110 Waverly Place
DATE: July 16, 2005
FOOD: Sauteed Chickpeas (complimentary); Buffalo Mozzarella and Basil Caprese; Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati; Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Oven Dried Tomatoes, Red Chiles and Bottarga di Muggine; Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Green Chilis; Grilled Quail with “Scorzonero alla Romana” and Saba; Side of Roasted Potatoes; Blueberry Crostata with Coconut Gelato; Rhubarb and Sweet Potato Budino with Cinnamon Gelato; Gelato and Sorbet Tasting (including Grapefruit Sorbet, Pistachio Gelato, Hazelnut Gelato, Kiwi Sorbet)
BEVERAGE: Two Quartinos of White Wine; One Quartino of Red
PRICE: $250.00 (for two)

Bravo Mario!

As a precautionary note, I will preface this review by saying that Babbo, after just two visits, is my favorite restaurant. This review will reflect the same glowing disposition I have been left with after my two meals at Babbo.

I doubt there is better pasta made anywhere in New York, maybe even in all of the United States, than the cross-cultural noodles created at Mario Batali’s Babbo. Though it is classified as Italian and for the majority of the dishes this label of nationality is appropriate, Batali’s food draws on influences from all over Mediterranean Europe. Numerous offerings contain the fiery spiciness of Spanish cooking and the desserts have all the refinement of gourmet French. But the overwhelming tendency is indeed towards Batali’s beloved Italy and nowhere is this more evident than in the transcendental and life-altering pasta Babbo has built its reputation on.

While I haven’t had the opportunity to try the entire menu, I’m certain it’s impossible to take a wrong turn anywhere, especially with regards to the pasta. On my first visit in March, Danny, Libby and I split five pastas and each was equally amazing. The Black Spaghetti was the winner of the evening, but the Goat Cheese Tortelloni and Beef Cheek Ravioli left my body in a state of convulsing pleasure, a true food orgasm. This time, having surprised Libby with this unexpected feast, we resolved to focus on untested aspects of the menu. Of course, we still had to order the Black Spaghetti again.

Our first course was Libby’s version of gastronomical heaven – buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad, known in Italian as Caprese. During a summer “studying” in Italy, Libby developed a love of this simple, yet elegant salad that stayed with her long past Florence. While I doubted Babbo could really make a rendition of the dish all that different from everywhere else, Mario, in yet another triumph, completely out did my expectations. First of all, the salad had the appearance of a work of art, the forest green leaves sculpted with holly tree points and fanned on the plate like a sun dial. Fresh tomatoes dotted the leaves like Christmas tree ornaments. But the taste was the true marvel. Rarely does mozzarella achieve this climactic profusion. Drier than most buffalo mozzarellas, Babbo’s was still unbelievably creamy and moist. Its texture was more like the froth on a non-Starbucks cappuccino than cheese. Libby didn’t even need to speak. Her cooing spoke volumes.

But I was ready for the noodles and on this account Mario was able to take my breath away once again. The Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati was perhaps more delicate than any pasta I’ve enjoyed. The weightlessness of the butter and wine sauce, applied with restraint and complimented by fresh grated cheese, was amazing. It was the ideal pair for the chewy earthiness of the mushroom and feathery tubes. The following course brought the Black Spaghetti, which was better than I remembered. Brash chiles and piquant chorizo add a flair to the rich gloss of the squid ink spaghetti. The small shrimp add the final layer making this dish as revelatory as it is. Even Libby, a hater of all things pork, indulgently agreed with the positive assessment of the Black Spaghetti.

Going out on a limb, we also ordered the Maccheroni alla Chitarra. I was expecting Kraft but I got Keller instead. In a take off of shrimp scampi, the thick spaghetti noodles were coated in salty fish flakes and thinly sliced garlic. The taste was at once of summer at the ocean and the heartiness tomato base of winter fortitude. To be able to combine such diverse elements into one unblemished whole is a feat only a magician like Batali could achieve.

Having ignored the Secondi courses in March, Libby and I selected the grilled quail this go-round. If all roast chickens were comparable to Babbo’s quail, there would be no need for steak any longer, and Morton’s and Smith and Wollensky’s would focus less on bovine and more on aviaries. The quail possessed a succulent tenderness unmatched in other birds. The meat fell of the bone with the same proficiency Italo Calvino uses to compose his prose. The mixed greens accompanying the dish were just as redolent, but it was the side order of roast potatoes, another holdover from our meal in March that took me to another dimension. While my love of potatoes is well documented, Babbo’s surpasses all others in the category, made with an ideally crisped skin and an inside as soft as mashed potatoes.

Batali has said on "Iron Chef America" that in the past, he too often has ignored desserts. No one would be able to gather this from Babbo’s sweets. The sweet-potato and rhubarb budino set the night on fire, graced with the pliancy of crème brulee, but with the substance of a tart. But the blueberry crostata, highlighted with toasted coconut, may have ruined pies for me forever. The crust had the perfect marriage of crumble and firmness, the blueberries emphasized the fruit. It was a pie fit for arcadia and I had somehow gained admittance. One final splurge, the six miniature scoops of sorbet and gelato were the final star in this luminous universe of a meal.

(Forgive this next personal indulgence, do not continue reading if you are prone to gagging on overly sentimental protestations)

As Libby and I left Babbo, high on life, food, and love, we found ourselves at the end of our most memorable day in New York. Babbo had supplied the final energy to complete the bliss. Amazingly though, the food was all that was on our mind. Suffering through a relationship based on bi-monthly visits, our dinners usually revolve around intense conversations of future plans and past joys. But at Babbo, we focused entirely on the present and for once, not on ourselves. Reflecting upon the dinner later, we realized the majority of the meal had been spent discussing, well, the food. Babbo is that deserving, that amazing, that adjective worthy. If reservations were easier to come by, I’d eat at Babbo every night. Happiness can’t be purchased, but perfect pasta can be. Sometimes a restaurant makes an already celebratory occasion, one in which every second shared with the person you care most about it the world seems to possess the staying power of a photograph, that much more luminous. Babbo is that place. Libby is that person.

Mario, you are my hero. Bravo!

RATING: 11+/10 (I know I said this was only reserved for Per Se, but Babbo deserves this rating too)

1 comment:

tara said...

Oh, I'd been looking forward to this review! Tell Libby she has lovely taste (in men and in food) as a well-prepared, in-season Caprese salad is one of my all time favourites. Add good bread, and I'm in heaven.

And after the sweetness of the desserts, the last paragraph was the perfect garnish!