Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Batali's Babbo.... Bravissimo!

Once again, some of the city's best food is coming from Mario.

I’ll be the first to admit that I spend a good deal of time blowing smoke up Mario Batali’s rear end.

But, the truth is his restaurants are just down right terrific.

It’s one thing to promise and not deliver… but when you can have top notch meals at any of his restaurants on any given night without disappointment… well, you have something you need to share.

Mario’s Babbo is one strange bird. It is a cozy, charming 2-story space located steps from Washington Square, in a old brownstone conversion. But what you won’t find here is complete refinement. Yes, the appointments are stylized and classic, the wine list is smallish and wonderful and the staff expressive without being pushy. That said, don’t be surprised if you hear a musical selection by Pink Floyd or Def Leopard playing over the house sound system.

It’s that type of bizarre edge that has made Babbo such an interesting place over the years… a hint of unexpectedness that this space loves to embrace. And from the moment you hit the door, there is a scripted experience that awaits every customer. It has been carefully planned, and is honestly the reason this store has developed the following it has. This is a space with a story.

My experience last week started on a Friday evening at 5pm, without a reservation…. that is, I had no reservations.

We cued in line about 4:45, which I now know is almost too late. The doors to the wine bar open at 5pm, and it’s then the first six parties of 2-4 people can stake their claim on a table in the bar with the maitre’d… sans reservation. By a stoke of luck, we were party #6.

After putting our names on the list and being assured of a table in the bar area (hey it’s Babbo, you take what you can get) we sat at the handsome bar, and nibbled on tiny Spanish olives and crunchy, addictive asaigo breadsticks. The wine list is full of rich, decadent wines and I ordered a glass to ease the 20 minute wait to be sat.

Once we were seated, we watched as no less that 30 couples were turned away to dine elsewhere. Only a five minute walk, my guess is that many of them wound up at Otto, in the much larger bar. Note to self: call ahead for a good table. Like a month ahead.

Being fans of Mario’s pasta, it didn’t take long to settle on the Pasta Tasting Menu, an option that all parties must agree on. Although the menu had countless mouthwatering options, tasting menus are usually very well thought out. This was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

So, after a delicious complimentary appetizer from the kitchen (I won’t ruin the surprise) the pasta began hitting the table.

This is what we experienced.

Black Tagliatelle with Roasted Corn

So much for getting off to a quiet start. This dish was spectacular in every aspect of the word. The flavors were perfectly balanced and appropriate for a light summer dish. They start here for a reason… this dish raises the bar. High.

Baccala “Mezzalune” with Black Olive Butter
Not as earth-shattering as the first, but a solid, well made dish. The baccala is a salt cod combined with potatoes, inside a ravioli. The butter and olives were the right combination to balance the sea-taste of the pasta. This was a decent portion, and left us wondering how much food we had signed up for.

Garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati”
Believe it or not, this was my first taste of garganelli pasta, and wow, I’m a fan. If you don’t know this pasta, it’s a thin, hand-rolled tube that is marked with thin slits to carry the sauce. The mushroom sauce was heavenly and this proved to be one of the best bites of the evening. At this point, we are getting full.

Fernando’s Pyramids with “Passato di Pomodoro”

Heavenly. Imagine pockets of fresh pasta, wrapped around fresh tomatoes,covered with shaved parm reggiano. I am stuffed.

Pappardelle Bolognese

By this point, Mario brings out pure simplicity. The ribbons of homemade pasta are lightly coasted with a slow cooked Bolognese of beef and veal. It is a delightful reminder of the culinary trip you just encountered… and serves as a welcome home. Never mind the fact that you are so full you can’t see straight.

As you would expect, there is not one, or two… but three courses of dessert. To get into this stage, we slowed waaaaaay down, had a cup of coffee and unbuttoned. 20 minutes later, we indulged in several delightful courses, including warm chocolate truffles as well as Olive Oil Gelato.

Cost wise, the Pasta Tasting Menu priced at $64. is a steal. Other spots can charge you up to or over $100 smackers for this kind of variety, but Babbo delivers for nearly half the price. If you feel like spending more, Babbo offers a wine compliment to this meal, with a new wine with each course. At an additional $50 it is a bargin, but be warned, you’re gonna be walking funny.

With Del Posto left to review, I salute the Batali empire and look forward to the next incarnation. If you haven’t visited in a while, I suggest you do so… you’ll remember your first time… and wonder why you have been away so long.