Helicopters circled overhead, newsvans hugged the curb as I made my way down 6th Avenue to meet Clotilde at her hotel for our 8:30 dinner date. Clotilde, that beloved Parisian, had descended upon New York a few days earlier, making her first appearance at Otto where her fans (myself included) came to greet her and her charming boyfriend, Maxence. Here we are all posed in a picture provided courtesy of Lulu’s Manhattan whose proprietor, Lulu, was one of the many people I was lucky enough to meet that night.
(I’m sure you can spot me in that pic (the hottie with white wine) and in the middle you’ll see Clotilde with Maxence; in the turquoise next to me is Lulu and next to her in front is Samantha of The Samantha Files who frequently comments on this here site; she was great to meet too. She and her husband, Dave, went to culinary school so some day they’re going to teach me knife skills. Watch out, Uma Thurman!)
Secretly, this night was just a sneak preview. Clotilde e-mailed me before her arrival and we planned a dinner together for Wednesday night. She asked me to suggest some places and among my suggestions, of course, was Babbo which I boldly described as “the opposite of French cooking.” Clotilde responded: “You have me violently tempted with your description–the opposite of French cooking!” With that we settled on Babbo and I was assigned the task of making the reservation.
Babbo, I’ll be the first to admit, is difficult to penetrate: especially if you’re using a phone. (Haha, that sentence is filthy but only to the filthy-minded.) There are several recorded messages you have to sit through before you can push buttons which lead you to more recorded messages. Since Babbo is near my school and my frequent coffee-shop haunts, I decided to go in during the day to see if I could make the reservation in person.
Sure enough, the door swung open and the daytime Babbo scene unfolded before me: tables missing, floors getting scrubbed, men with binders and calculators doing Babbo business at the front bar. “Can we help you?” one them asked and I said I wanted to make a reservation. They pointed me to a woman sitting at a table behind the podium; she was surrounded by phones and paper and she had the expected job-weariness of a Babbo reservationist. When she concluded a phone call she asked if she could help me and I told her I wanted to make a reservation for Wednesday the 22nd. She opened a large dusty book and dragged her finger down the page. “I only have a 10:30 left, will that do?” I paused and considered my options. There were no options. “10:30 it is!”
When Clotilde and I discussed the lateness of this reservation at Otto we decided to meet at 8:30 at her hotel and go for drinks first. That’s just what we did: I walked in at 8:30 as Clotilde strode off the elevator in her Paris finest. She went for a hug and I went for a practiced French hello: kiss on either cheek. Her hug won out as I unpursed my lips. We made for the door and I told her I’d done my research for our pre-dinner drinks and that Cru, only a few blocks from her hotel, had a spectacular wine list. “However,” I warned, “I know nothing about wine.”
“Neither do I really!” laughed Clotilde. We walked past Washington Square Park where a screen was erected for a showing of Bob Dylan’s “Look Back in Anger.” Clotilde told me her father loves Bob Dylan.
At Cru, we waited a while for a seat at the bar and when the seats finally came we perused the wine list. Surprisingly, the wines by the glass were most reasonable and Clotilde chose a Beaujolais because she prefers reds. She explained that Beaujolais is a very young wine that comes out in the Autumn; I remembered a post I’d read on Frost Street about it and tried to contribute to the conversation. “I like the color red,” I said.
The waiter poured my glass first and then Clotilde’s. “I thought the waiter was going to be sexist,” I said, “and offer me a taste first before serving us.” In my mind the woman is always offered the wine to taste first.
“You’d call it sexist, but I’d call it traditional,” Clotilde countered with a smile. In France, she said, it’s an honor to taste the wine first and it’s usually reserved for the head of a family or for the one with the most wine expertise. I marveled at how lucky she was to come from a place where food was such an embedded part of the culture. She didn’t argue.
So we chatted away, time trickled by, and soon it was time for Babbo. We paid the check and walked back along the park–Bob Dylan was on screen with his nasal voice and harmonica–and soon Babbo’s red and black letters greeted us as we swung the door open and prepared for a night of feasting.
The host immediately led us upstairs to our table. We were sat close to the staircase and quickly presented water, menus and chickpea bruscetta. We asked a hostess to take a picture and here we are!
Historical meetings don’t get more photogenic! Nixon and Elvis watch out!
Now then. The food. I explained our choices–we could go a la carte or we could order the pasta tasting menu which I’d done with Lisa, but only the vegetarian version, or we could get the traditional tasting menu which has a little of everything. Clotilde confessed that she’d already investigated and settled upon the traditional tasting menu if that was ok. “Ok by me!” I said. This would be my first time doing the traditional tasting menu at Babbo and I was psyched.
We ordered two bellinis to start–cactus pear–which I urged Clotilde to try because I felt they were part of the Babbo experience. We toasted to the meal ahead and devoured some bruscetta.
“Mmmm,” said Clotilde, “what flavors are in here?” We dissected a bit but came to very few conclusions.
When we ordered the tasting menus for ourselves, Clotilde asked me if I wanted to do the wine pairing. “I dunno,” I confessed, “that’s a lot of wine.”
“How much wine is it a person?” we asked the waiter.
“By the end it’s like a bottle each,” said the waiter.
“Wow,” said Clotilde, “that is a lot.”
So we asked if he could pair two courses with wine for us and he agreed. “Lots of people do that,” he said as if to say: “good idea!”
But soon, our bellinis barely sipped, the first course arrived along with the first glass of wine.
“In France they would wait for us to finish our drinks first,” she said staring at the beautiful first course: “Cool Pecorino Flan” with Fava and La Mozza Oil.
“Well it’s not getting cold so let’s finish our drinks first,” she suggested. We drank our bellinis and I worried that the waiter was going to rush us out. So when the waiter walked past I asked if we could slow down the pace a bit. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it’ll be a long meal.”
He didn’t say it in a nice way and I wondered if I offended him. Clotilde said not to worry and I channeled my worries into hunger which led me to the first bite. Clotilde followed suit and she “mmm”ed her reaction.
“It’s a great combination of flavors,” she said. “What’s this!” she asked pointing the strange beige mini-squash-shaped object you see on the right side of the plate.
“I think it’s a ramp,” I guessed and we asked the waiter.
“That’s a pickled ramp,” he said, “it comes into season in the spring in the Northeast. It’s a type of onion.”
Clotilde had never heard of it. “What’s that word?” she asked me. “Ramp,” I replied and she mentally processed it.
Next came for me what was the highlight of the meal: Pappardelle with Morels and Thyme.
I saw the “Glass Menagerie” tonight with Jessica Lange and during the performance my mind wandered to this dish. I remembered the exciting texture of those morels; the saltiness and the earthiness of the thyme. Then the pasta and the buttery sauce… for me, this was heaven. I think Clotilde loved it too. Plus the wine went great with it: on the bill it said it was a Vespa (“a little motorcycle?” joked Clotilde). For me, this dish represents everything I love about Babbo.
Then there was Duck Tortelli with “Sugo Finto.”
“What’s Sugo Finto?” asked Clotilde. We asked the waiter.
He explained that it was a thick sauce; the internet tells me it’s a meat sauce made without meat. Again, this was delicious. It came with a red wine: Rosso di Montalcino, Valdicava 2003. Our white wine was only half gone, so again we felt a bit rushed. Everytime we finished a dish it was immediately taken away and the next was brought out. Clotilde gently compared it to Paris where a meal is something you linger over, not something you rush through. I proffered the theory that they were rushing us because we were starting so late: the waiter probably wanted to go home. But really, if that was true, it’s lame: it’s not our fault they only had a 10:30 reservation.
Here, then, we have Guinea Hen with Ligurian Vegetables and Black Truffles:
This dish got me so excited because I’d never had truffles.
“Oooh,” I said, “these are my first truffles!”
I sniffed the plate. It gave off a nice aroma.
“I think you should try a truffle by itself before you eat it with everything else,” suggested Clotilde. I did and found myself–shock!–a bit disappointed. “Hmmm,” I said sadly, “it doesn’t taste like much.”
Clotilde tried hers and she agreed. “It’s not as strong as a normal truffle,” she agreed.
But the dish itself–with the hen and the apricot sauce and hen of the wood mushrooms–was, again, heavenly. Clotilde seemed pleased too–her dishes were scraped clean–so I secretly patted myself on the back. (Gossipy Clotilde Fact: she takes big bites! She always finished her plates before I finished mine. Oh those Frenchies…)
The second half of our meal was the desserty half. First a cheese course: Coach Farm’s Finest with Pink Peppercorn Honey.
I loved this. It came with little toasts and the peppercorns were hot but just hot enough. “These are my first pink peppercorns!” I said excitedly.
“Wow,” observed Clotilde, “you’ve been deflowered twice tonight: first the truffles and now the pink peppercorns!”
Then there was this Warm Fig with Honey and Yogurt:
“I’m surprised they’re serving fig,” said Clotilde, “because figs aren’t in season.” But, again, it was terrific: prepared on the grill so the bottom was charred a bit. “I wonder where they buy them?” I pondered thinking I could use some figs in my life.
Out came “Gelato di Bergamatto con Brioche”:
“What’s bergamatto?” I asked.
“It’s a type of citrus,” Clotilde said knowledgably.
I took a bite. “Whoah!” I exclaimed. This was a strong citrus flavor cut by little pieces of chocolate. But the citrus was way strong. “It tastes a little like perfume,” I observed. Clotilde agreed and yet we still both licked our plates clean.
Finally—yes this post has an end!—we were served our Chocolate Hazelnut Cake with Hazelnut Gelato:
Yet Clotilde made a keen observation.
“Mon dieu!” she shrieked. (Just kidding, she doesn’t shriek in French.) “Why look: our desserts our different!” Here she is indicating:
And she was right. While hers was a chocolate hazelnut cake, mine was a pecan cake with cinnamon undertones. We tasted each others. “I like yours,” I said diplomatically, “but I like mine better.” She liked hers better too. After all, you can’t have Ms. Chocolate and Zucchini NOT prefer the chocolate!
At this point in the evening, I looked at my watch.
“Oh my,” I said, “you’ll never guess what time it is.”
“12? 12:15?” she guessed.
“12:45!” I responded.
Tables were clearing; we were among the last few diners in the joint. When I’d gone to the bathroom earlier, our waiter told Clotilde he was leaving for the night and that someone was taking over. This added a new component to the theory of why he was rushing us: he knew he had to leave at a certain time so he wanted his tip. Clotilde enjoyed this theory.
I didn’t have the presence of mind at this point–let’s see, wine at Cru, bellini and then two more glasses, I was toasted!–to ask Clotilde how she felt about my “opposite of French cooking” comment. Now that I look at it, that’s an unfair assessment of both Babbo and France. (Though Mario Batali does poke jabs at France on his show.) Both cuisines are the result of a deep, complicated, passionate relationship between culture and food; if France’s is more fussy, it’s also often more beautiful. But these matters didn’t concern us at this point: we were in that zen state you reach when you’ve been incredibly well fed.
Plus: we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company! Obviously, I can’t write out all our conversations–the intricacies of food blogging, the algorithm that makes us highly Googleable, her love for Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcesse. But what a marvel it is that two people from such different backgrounds and lives and cultures; two people who would NEVER have met but for food blogging came together to enjoy such a fabulous meal. Clotilde is as successful as she is because of who she is: a sprightly, intelligent and enthusiastic person who cares deeply and passionately about what she does. And to eat with such a person in a place such as Babbo is a meal made in heaven. Who knew that angels read food blogs?!