Thursday, August 17, 2006
I had always wanted to try Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo, but I put it off.
It's not like we visit places of that ilk very often at all. But we allow ourselves the occasional splurge. Anyway, I can always justify these things as "research."
It was Bill Buford's book Heat that did it. Buford, once a full-time writer and editor for The New Yorker, wrote a profile on Batali and eventually found himself sucked further and further into the world of the kitchen staffer, to the point where he spent lots of time working at Babbo, as a prep cook, grill cook, and pasta guy. I'm a somewhat suggestible person, so by like page twelve I was thinking, Margy and I have to eat at Babbo. So I made a reservation, and then I got excited.
My biggest fear was that we'd be arriving several years too late. Since he opened Babbo in 1998, Mario has been spreading himself a little thin. (Okay, maybe that's the wrong term.) He's got several other restaurants -- though supposedly Babbo remains the most "Molto Mario" of the bunch -- plus his surely time-consuming Food Network gigs, which include my favorite television show, Iron Chef. In short, he's a star. I figured he'd be nowhere near Babbo on the night we went, but that's how things go. (Turns out I was correct.) From reading Buford's book I understood that Batali is present in Babbo's cooking even though he's almost never present in Babbo's kitchen.
To our great delight, the restaurant did not disappoint. Far from it. Every dish was wonderful. Even our table was primo. Now, for some couples such a table would have led to an immediate request for repositioning, but not for Margy and me. No, no -- we sat pretty much right outside the kitchen, where the action is.
We watched a huge number of runners bring out plates, always serving an entire table without making anyone wait while others' dinners grew cold. We caught a peek at most of the dishes, and we played little games like guessing which of the dark-suited staff was really in charge (besides co-owner Joe Bastianich, that is, who was clearly the top dog in the dining room). We got to sit right by a big round center table where servers and other workers would carve meat and fillet fish. This was an unexpected source of fun, because there was far more bumbling going on than I would have expected, as not-so-highly-skilled workers (some were better than others) tried to use a spoon and fork in one hand, like they were playing the marimba with doubled-up mallets. Only the marimba was a delicate whole fish, and the mallets could easily shred it. We watched them sweat.
Again, beginning with the complimentary chickpea crostini that started our meal, every single thing we ate was fabulous. And, no holds barred, we ate a lot. We opened with grilled octopus that was meatier and more tender than any I've ever had and was dressed with a limoncello vinaigrette (ah, Mario). Another starter was marinated sardines with caramelized fennel and lobster oil -- firm, briny, delicious.
Then came the pastas. We couldn't resist ordering Babbo's famous beef cheek ravioli, which were filled with a beautifully molten meat mixture and topped with a ridiculously rich sauce made with squab liver. For good measure, some black truffles were shaved on top. It might be uncool for me to admit I usually don't love truffles, but tonight I began my conversion to the truffle way. Our other pasta was equally magical -- black spaghettini with rock shrimp, crumbled Calabrese sausage, and green chilies. Wow. I had read that Batali thinks of pasta accompaniments as condiments rather than sauces, as do Italians in general, and this really illuminated that point. The noodles weren't swimming in anything. They were dressed with some oil, and the other ingredients formed exactly that: a condiment, to encourage and support rather than compete with the pasta.
Oh, and then just for the heck of it we had some duck, a confit leg topped with a sliced breast. The duck was set on a delightful bed of barleylike grains that was fragrant with cheese and studded with lima beans. Golden beets adorned the plate. By this point Margy's hearty appetite was waning, so I stepped it up and devoured the duck. I thought for a second about surrendering, but thank goodness I pressed on; I would still be kicking myself now had I left even one bite.
We finished our amazing northern Italian pinot noir (or, according to its German-speaking label, brauburgunder), and then a stiff sip of grappa prepared us for dessert, which arrived right as Spike Lee walked by on the way to his table. We had Mario's signature saffron panna cotta, which was served with stewed apricots and apricot sorbet. Awesome. And of course we had the zeppolini, little round donuts that were crisp and lighter than air. Those came with three sauces: chocolate sauce, peach marmelata, and something with honey.
Despite all that food, we felt great on our way out. We'd honestly done more damage last night with all those damn tortilla chips. Babbo, bless its lardo-wrapped heart, is still committed to doing things right, and there's no sign of that changing anytime soon. Bravissimo.