Babbo is located on Waverly between 6th Avenue and Washington Square West and I walk past it several times a week on my way back home from school. Every time I pass it my body tingles a little the way your body tingles when you see someone attractive through a train window pulling away from the station—oh how magical it might be, if only if only if only…
Don’t get me wrong. Unlike the mysterious person through the train window, I’ve done Babbo. I’ve done it twice. (Both times with Lisa: first reviewed on Chowhound, second time reviewed (by way of an epic poem) on here). I’ve declared Jean-Georges the best restaurant in New York, but I think Babbo’s my favorite. I love Babbo.
So Lauren came today. Hi Lauren! She’s here doing work on a case for her big new law job in DC. Lauren in Atlanta was always a bit reticent when it came to fine dining because we LIVED together and we ate many many meals together so it was hard to justify spending mucho dinero on just a Wednesday night meal. But now that we live THOUSANDS of MILES apart (ok it’s just a 3 hour train ride) random city visits merit special occassion meals. Tonight we had many options before us, but I had my heart set on Babbo–and since Lauren had never been there, I practically insisted on it. We were not disappointed.
The first thing you should know is that we did not have a reservation. We simply walked in. This is good to know because Babbo has an intimidating reservation system. You call, you wait, you press buttons, you wait some more, you press more buttons, and finally you talk to someone. That person will most likely tell you they are booked for the entire month. You hang up and drop out of society, having lost your will to live.
When my brother came to town a few weeks ago, I wanted to take him to Babbo. I experienced everything described in the preceding paragraph, gave up, and took him to Home and Film Forum instead. We had fun.
But tonight I recalled something I read somewhere (perhaps by Steven Shaw at eGullet?) that the best way to get into a hard-to-get into restaurant is just to show up. There are cancellations, there are tables at the bar. And that was precisely the case tonight at Babbo. Lauren and I walked in at 8:50 (we came from a one-man show on the life of Tennessee Williams at school) and the host told us a table at the bar would only be 30 minutes. We said “woohoo!” and gave our name.
At the bar, I made Lauren have a bellini. Both times I’ve been to Babbo, we’ve had bellinis at the bar. Tonight’s bellini was prickly pear: it was red in color and sweet and tart and delicious. Lauren, I believe, enjoyed hers too.
The bar scene was crowded. I turned to Lauren and said: “How would you desribe the people here? Fancy? Yuppy?”
She stared at a weird looking couple and said: “Men cheating on their wives.”
I thought that was funny.
Soon (a little less than 30 minutes, actually) a hostess came and got us and sat us at a table right in front of the bar. A hard-to-please person (like my mom, for example) would have said “unacceptable!” because the table was in a throng of people waiting for their own fancier non-bar tables. But we took ours gladly and I actually enjoyed the hustle and the bustle and the people-watching.
Let’s talk about the music here because Babbo’s music is something of a sensitive subject for those who read Frank Bruni’s 3-star review a few months ago in the Times. Bruni marked Babbo down for the loud rock music that disrupted his meal. I had the completely opposite experience: I felt like the rock music enhanced the meal because it was so eclectic and unusual for such a highly lauded dining establishment. Radiohead blasted overhead–“Karma Police”–and I felt like this place wasn’t for my parents, it was for ME! Young people! Us!
Seriously, the music gives Babbo a mystical vibe. It’s spiritual rock: Radiohead, Coldplay (I’m not suggesting that Coldplay’s on par with Radiohead, but they did play some Coldplay tonight)—music that can be aggressive but also ponderous and magical. Like when the bells come on at the end of “OK, Computer”: that coincided with the arrival of our appetizer, and the feeling was that of an ancient food ritual carried out in a futeristic society. I asked Lauren if she agreed and she said, “I’d prefer Italian folk music.”
*****And now for the food…****
First we were presented with an amuse (as the French would say) or “a gift from the chef” (as our waiter said): chick pea bruschetta. Here’s Lauren modelling it for you all:
She looks a little nervous. “I look scared,” she agreed, surveying the picture after taking it. But after tasting a chickpea her mind was set at ease. “Mmmm,” she said, “I like chickpeas.” The bruchetta had a great balance of textures and flavors—the crustiness of the toast, the bite and the creaminess of the chickpeas and the snap of the vinegar and oil. A great beginning.
Then for our first appetizer: Goat Cheese Truffles. I’ve asked this question before, but I’ll ask it again: how pretty is this picture?
Seriously, it looks better than the picture in the Babbo cookbook.
The concept here is that balls of goat cheese are rolled in different coatings. The one on the upper right is smoked paprika, the one on the bottom is cracked black pepper and–most unusual–the one on the upper left is fennel pollen. Lauren tried that first, not knowing what it was and she seemed a bit nonplussed. “That’s fennel pollen,” I explained. That didn’t seem to help.
But she regained her composure with the other two flavors. “I like the smoked paprika and black pepper ones a lot,” she concluded. I was left with the fennel pollen which I gladly consumed. It tastes like mild powdery licorice. It’s not for everyone. But I do think it’s cool that it’s pollen.
Now then, the pasta course. You can’t go to Babbo and not get pasta. I made Lauren get the pumpkin lune because you have to have the pumpkin lune when you go there. She kvelled over it: “Mmmmm,” she moaned, “this is so good.” It is SO good. I dare you not to like it!
I took a bite of hers and snapped a terrible bleachy picture of the half-eaten lune on the fork so you could see the filling. Behold!
[It just occurred to me: this is my first time to Babbo with my new camera. How lucky for you, then, right? In terms of vicarious eating, that is.]
For my pasta, I had the beef cheek ravioli. It’s not particularly photogenic, but it is beautiful to eat:
It’s very rich and very dense. There’s liver in it, which gives it weight. I liked it—I think I’d like it more on a freezing cold winter’s night. It’s that sort of pasta. It ain’t heavy, it’s my pasta.
Now then, the main courses…
Lauren had the duck. I’ve had the duck before and you can see pictures if you click the link to my second Babbo post. She really enjoyed it. That’s understood.
I had the lamb. This lamb must have been sacrificed at a temple because it was the most succulent, delicious lamb I’ve ever tasted:
The outside was charred perfectly and the inside melted in your mouth. It was so tender. There were hints of rosemary and other flavors. The pile in the middle featured peas and mushrooms and whole pieces of mint. This dish was a knock-out. 4 stars. A lamb for all seasons.
But hold on. We’re not done with our hyperbole yet. Our greatest Babbo moment has yet to arrive. Can you feel it? Can you sense it? Do you know what’s coming?
I was very stern with Lauren when it came to ordering dessert. “WE ARE ORDERING DESSERT,” I said definitively.
We were given our dessert menus and I yielded to her to make the decision.
“I’m so full, Adam,” she said, “you decide.”
I know Lauren likes chocolate. It was between pistachio semi-freddo with chocolate ganache and Italian donuts. The waiter steered us towards the former and oh.my.God.look:
I am printing a picture of this dessert and putting it in my wallet. We were practically licking the plate by the end. How to describe it to you?
The semi-freddo itself was like a frozen, lush, creamy whipped cream without all the air. It’s dense but not so dense. It’s like a custard, but not so eggy. And it’s redolent, here, of pistachios–glorious pistachios–that go so well with the chocolate, it’s like heaven itself ordained this dish. I have no idea what’s on the outer rim of the plate (honey? syrup?) but all these flavors combined make this the best dessert I have experienced in the latter half of my life. Every dessert from the age of 13 onward has paled in comparison to this one. This is the dessert I want before I am executed for the murder of some-yet-to-be-determined innocent victim. In fact, I’m more likely to carry out a murder if it means this dessert will be my last meal. Oh, this dessert… sigh…
is the meal over? I guess it is. The check arrives. Lauren and I strike up an interesting conversation.
“You know,” says Lauren, “it’s amazing but for the price of this dinner we could have bought two iPod shuffles.”
Aha! A debate ensues! Temporal gratification vs. worldly goods; the intangible vs. the tangible. How do you quantify a meal at Babbo?
“You can’t put a price on experience,” I say, whimsically but perhaps profoundly.
Lauren agrees. We pay our bill–chat with the host (“Thank you for coming,” he says to us most kindly, as if we did HIM a favor by filling a much sought-after table) and walked 18 blocks back up to my apartment. Another perfect, priceless evening at Babbo.