A Blind Date At Babbo

A few months ago, at the end of September, John Kessler–former food critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constiution and one of our nation’s best food writers–e-mailed me. John and I met back when I lived in Atlanta. He wrote a really kind and thorough piece about me just when I was starting out (you can read it here; you have to register and then wither at the sight of my horrible picture (the photographer insisted on using a fish-eyed lens: never fall for that!)) and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Last year he took me to a fashion show; more recently he e-mailed me after my Alain Ducasse post to warn me about compromising my integrity. (I haven’t eaten free truffles since!) This e-mail, though, was titled, simply, “Favor.”

The favor, it turns out, was one of the best favors I’ve ever had to perform. You see John has a friend named Carol. They met at jury duty and instantly hit it off. “She’s in her 70’s,” he explained in his e-mail, “retired and traveling around the world enjoying herself, a firebrand liberal with a hilarious sense of humor. I love everything about her.” She would be in New York at the end of November to see opera and she was looking for someone to “be her guest at Babbo” on the 29th. John recommended me. Would I go?

A speedometer would have trouble calculating how quickly my fingers hit the keys Y-E-S.

Since this happened in September, I nearly forgot about it. But as the end of November rolled around I got a fun, funny e-mail from Carol. She said the reservation was at 5:30 and that we could meet at the wine bar at 5. “I’ll be wearing a black coat with a fox fur collar and a black hat,” she wrote. “You should have no problem identifying me as I look almost exactly like myself.”

At 5 PM, then, on November 29th I stood outside Babbo and studied the crowd of people waiting for the doors to open. I must confess I was nervous: I felt like I was going on a blind date. I looked for elegantly dressed ladies standing by themselves but saw none. Then the doors opened and the crowd entered and I stayed behind. Carol, I determined, had yet to arrive.

The night was cold and I paced a bit and had my hands in my pockets when suddenly a cab pulled up and a hand waved at me. Could this be Carol? It could. I watched her pay the cab driver and then opened the door to help her out.

“I hope you’re Carol,” I said.

“I am indeed,” she answered. She got out of the cab and smiled a big smile. “I’m so excited about this dinner, aren’t you?”

I took her by the arm and led her into the restaurant. There, the maitre’d took Carol’s name, the coat check woman took my heavy back pack and we were led upstairs to a table in the back. The entire room was quiet and Carol and I had ample time to learn about each other. But first she ordered a Manhattan.

“You’re drinking a Manhattan in Manhattan!” I quipped. She laughed and posed for this picture:


Carol told me lots of details from her life. She works in a book store in Atlanta, she has three children and several grandchildren. Paul Auster is one of her favorite authors; she loves the theater (she’d just seen “The Vertical Hour” which she didn’t like) and is a passionate opera lover.

“I wish I knew more about opera,” I said. “I’ve never seen one.”

Carol couldn’t believe it. “You must go!” she said. “Don Carlo is playing on Monday, you should try to see that.”

(When I told her I had a student ID and could get $20 tickets she practically fell out of her chair and urged that I take advantage. So on Monday, actually, I rode the train at 9 AM up to Lincoln Center to try to get tickets for Don Carlo. They were sold out. Drats! But I will try again before the season’s over.)

Our waiter approached and asked if we were ready to order. We weren’t. We’d hardly looked at the menu.

“Oh boy,” said Carol when she finally opened its pages.

“I know,” I said. “It’s intimidating.”

We studied the menu for a while and the waiter returned. “Can I take your order?” he asked again. But Carol hadn’t decided on an entree.

“Can we order the appetizers and then order the entree after?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “The kitchen prefers you order everything at once.”

Carol studied the menu some more and our waiter, I could tell, was a bit impatient. When Carol decided he took our order and walked away.

“He probably wants to get three turns tonight,” said Carol. I think Carol was totally right: The food came out extraordinarily fast and we were rushed through our meal. This is the second time I’ve experienced this at Babbo.

But Babbo being Babbo, it often makes up for it with the food. Carol and I shared two antipasti plates. A gorgeous plate of salumi:


And lovely marinated sardines:


I knew I loved Carol when she took a bite of the sardine and said, “Forgive me for saying this…but this really gets me off.”

We chatted some more about life and love and theater and opera. She explained to me the athletic nature of opera singing, how opera singers don’t use mics and therefore have to have the talent to hit the notes to the back of the house. I told her I saw Beverly Sills co-host The View. She smiled and ate another sardine.

For the next course we shared goose liver ravioli with a balsamic reduction which Carol was really excited for. “I love liver,” she said. Here’s a bad picture:


It’s a pretty presentation but, unfortunately, an unsuccessful dish. “It’s tough on the outside,” said Carol, referring to the pasta. I took a bite and had to agree: it wasn’t properly cooked. Having made pasta from scratch myself, now, I know that you have to cook it all the way through and this certainly wasn’t. And the sauce was a bit overwhelming. “It’s a bit disappointing,” said Carol sadly.

Almost instantly our plates were whisked away and our entrees arrived. It was 6:15. We’d only been sitting for 45 minutes. We were extraordinarily rushed.

But we were there for the food, we told ourselves. I had the venison in a cranberry sauce:


The sauce was less sweet than I expected and the venison was extremely rare, but I enjoyed it. Carol had the lamb chops which were wonderfully tender and plentiful. “Here,” she said, “you’re a growing boy” and plopped one on my plate. I didn’t refuse it and proceeded to grow a few more inches around the waist.

Carol told me the story of how she met John during jury duty. It’s a funny story because at the time John was the food critic for the AJC so when they asked him what he did for a living he could only say he wrote for the paper. “They kept pressing him,” she laughed. He said he wrote “feature stories.” But she knew who he was from his name.

“He’s really smart,” she said. “And have you ever heard him talk about Japanese food? He knows so much.”

Soon we were done with our entrees and the dessert menus arrived. These were brought by a curly blonde waiter or captain who may have been a Greek statue come to life. “Whoo,” said Carol fanning herself, “is he handsome.”

For dessert I ordered the saffron panna cotta:


And Carol had the chocolate hazelnut cake, which she poses with here:


She wasn’t a fan of my panna cotta (“That’s something you taste once and never want to taste again,” she quipped) but she enjoyed her cake. We talked about the rest of her trip, the operas she was going to see, the friend she was staying with. She said she may come back in February and that she’d love to take me to an opera if I was willing. Was I willing? Of course I was willing. “That’d be terrific fun,” she said.

When the evening was over, I escorted her outside and helped her into a cab. Carol told me earlier that John had teased her that our “date” was going to end like a certain 70s movie with Cat Stevens music. They say behind every joke lies some truth, but I’ll let you be the judge of how our evening ended. Suffice it to say it was a real pleasure getting to meet Carol–she was a hoot and a half.


27 thoughts on “A Blind Date At Babbo”

  1. I hate you Adam!!!! Haha, just kidding, but I’ve been trying to eat at Babbo for months. My timing is always crappy and I can never grab reservations (usually I go into the city on very short notice). I’m going to try to get a table for late December though, keep your fingers crossed for me!

    Althought I’m not excited about them rushing you through their meal. Thats no fun.

  2. harold and maude. wow.

    “oh no he didn’t just go there…” that was my reaction to that.

    i wonder if matt and lisa were commenting about how “cute” and “sweet” that movie was. haha.

    what happens when you use flash in babbo? do other ppl take notice?

  3. I don’t know if I am more jealous that you got to eat at Babbo or that you got to eat at Babbo with such a wonderful lady. She sounds a lot like my mom.

  4. Matt, I have a tip: show up at 5, like we did, and when the doors open ask for a table at the bar. It’s an early time to eat dinner but you’ll get to eat from the full menu and have an authentic Babbo experience without the hassle of having to make a reservation. And you’ll actually get to eat at a table–they reserve a few at the front for people just like you! When you’re finished early you can catch a movie at Film Forum or IFC and then go sing show tunes at Marie’s Crisis. What a lovely evening.

  5. A shame that it sounds like they rush their customers through the meal. And what’s this about “No, the kitchen prefers”. What about what the customer prefers? I’m just reading Bill Buford’s “Heat” about Babbo and Batali, getting the kitchen-side view of the operation, but still, respect for the customer should come first.

  6. But would you go back? It doesn’t sound like you had anything that you couldn’t have whipped up a better version of yourself. And what’s with the bad service? I don’t know how much money you plunked down, but I suspect it’s in the realm of “I don’t expect to be rushed.”

  7. Opera? Great food? Carol sounds like she really lives life. And I would curse your good luck–first Alain Ducasse and now this–but you’re a textbook example of how the harder you work, the more luck you make.

  8. I’ve had that goose liver ravioli. I also thought it was a little overwhelming, but I think it was a mistake to order it without wine — I feel like it would have balanced the balsamic sauce nicely. Were you drinking wine? (It was the one time I ate at Babbo and I still regret not ordering wine.)

  9. Yes…The Kez is one of the best food writers we have these days…and I’m glad you still know it even though you’re in the NYC. What a great post :)

  10. As far as getting tickets for opera, you can try your luck with student tickets, and this season the Met is doing rush tickets. They start selling them two hours before curtain, and they’re also twenty bucks. They’re orchestra seats, and always so worth it. Little tip though, show up three hours before curtain. The line gets long really fast.

  11. I am the son of Carol, and I am, indeed, lucky to have such a wonderful, lively, intelligent, worldly mother.

  12. What a great story, how fun! And to eat at Babbo, it’s too bad that the dining experience was better.

    I’ve had the pleasure of eating at Babbo twice this year. The first time, by myself at the bar, the second with two friends, we waited 40 minutes for a table in the bar area. I too have had the lamb chops, they’re great.

    If you really want to knock yourself out, though, you MUST try the Beef Cheek Ravioli (Primi) and the Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads (Secondi). MMM mmm mmm!!!!

  13. What a sweet story! And what an absolutely fantastic ending. I adore Harold & Maude. Possibly the best movie ever. Sigh…..I love Bud Cort. What ever happened to him?

  14. oldest grandson

    I just saw this articleand…wow

    she toldme”isn’t great to have a cool grandmother”. i replied “i have my whole life”.

  15. Lucky you! I would like to go to Babbo with a wonderful woman like Carol. It kind of sucks that you have to be rushed during your dinner though.

    And you should try to watch an opera performance. Heck, I was one of those crazy people back a few months ago waiting for those dress rehearsal tickets in Lincoln Center. It was a real treat in spite of waiting for nearly 3 hours on line.

  16. It sounds like a lovely evening. Carol sounds so sweet. I’m now reminiscing my dinner at Babbo in July. It was wonderful. I miss it and I miss New York. I can’t wait for next year.

  17. Carol is an old, dear friend of mine. It’s amazing how well she is captured in this article. She is one of the most intelligent, sweet and well-travelled women I know. So is her oldest daughter. She has a wonderfully intelligent family and has passed her humor to them all. What a wonderful article. My advice: take her up on the opera!

  18. babbos pork chop is sooooo good! and the squid ink spaghetti too! mmmmmmmm, drooling onto keyboard!

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