Sunday, February 06, 2011

Babbo (Manhattan) 02/2011

Chef Mario Batali, who left Iron Chef America about 4 years ago, remains one of America's celebrity chef's. One result of this is that it is extremely difficult to get a reservation at his Manhattan restaurant Babbo although they serve about 250 patrons daily in three sitting with the last starting at 11.15 pm. Booking is done via telephone and the line is usually engaged. We got lucky with a 10.30 cancellation.
Coats checked we were escorted to the upstairs dining area. This pleasant room, with about a dozen tables, is simply decorated. There are framed Italian sayings around the walls. A very big vase holds the bare branches of Pussy Willows
in the middle of the room. In America it is a ritual to pick these branches as a harbinger's of spring, although it is mid winter just now.
There is a constant flow of white shirted waiters, about 8 of them in this room, constantly passing between the tables. Adding to the noise of conversation there is a background of musak that did nothing for the atmosphere for us.
The wine list was unfamiliar to me with a small range served in 250 ml flagons (quartino).
Whilst we studied the menu an amuse bouche of vinaigrette chick peas on bruschetta arrived.

There is a lot to choose from. As well as an extensive a la carte menu there are two tasting menus, one, a white truffle menu is $300 per person, and a more ordinary
I started with
Goose Liver Ravioli with balsamic vinegar and brown butter ($24).
This dense, intense sauce plastered all over eight, otherwise excellent foie gras filled ravioli, unfortunately overwhelmed the dish. I scraped the sauce off one raviolo?, which didn't look much better. Sandra's spagettini with a pound of lobster in a tomato sauce ($29)
had a lot of lobster but it was also flooded with masses of quite strong sauce, much more than she wanted. There was minimum attention to presentation with the whole lot dumped on the plate as a small mountain of pasta.
Rabbit with Brussel sprouts, parsnip, Babbo pancetta and carrot vinaigrette ($28)

was an interesting dish. The rabbit was very tender and delicate, a very fine flavour, it could easily have been mistaken for chicken breast. All the other ingredients could be identified in this dish by their texture but they were so drenched in the powerful sauce, which is not obvious in this pic because it is obscured under the rabbit, that there taste was lost.

Barbecued Squab with roasted beet, "Farrotto" and porchini mustard

was yet another very well cooked dish with a potent sauce. The farrotto was new to us a very well suited to the sqab,
A note about farro: From Anson Mills
The landscape of farrotto...

Time: 15 minutes to prep and about 1 ½ hours to cook

If you know risotto, you know farrotto. Farrotto mimics risotto's cooking paths, and borrows its luxuriously simple ingredients almost to the grain. Farrotto manages to capture risotto's profound comfort quotient. But these two dishes from the Veneto are ultimately rather different. For one thing farro manifests none of the demure, maidenly aspects of Arborio rice that demand a civilized interaction between you and your fork; farrotto virtually bounds off the fork and into your mouth, a muscular, robust, big wheat-y presence. Whereas risotto graces plates of fish, veal or chicken done in delicate sauces or braised, farrotto complements more ruggedly seasoned fare--grilled chicken, lamb, pork or beef. Farrotto is meaty enough to fill in for a protein and pair with braised greens or scalloped sweet potatoes. The difference between risotto and farrotto is ultimately one of character.

Rice and farro have always had a symbiotic relationship. Both are true landraces--heirloom grains selected by farmers for their cultural and agricultural strengths over many centuries. The cultivation of farro as a protective winter cover crop in the vast rice fields of the Veneto, helped it survive into modernity.

The thing we actually liked best was a dessert. Warm Date Walnut Budino,
Italian for pudding, with buttermilk ice cream ($13) was light, rich but not over sweet and almost melted in the mouth. A dessert not to be missed.

So, has the E,emperor no clothes? On the basis of the meal we had Babbo can not rate as a top restaurant. The food is heavy, over seasoned, with a tendency to excessive vinaigrette flavours. It might rate OK if you had spent the day chopping wood. In every other regard Babbo was excellent but, after all, one does go to a restaurant primarily for the food.

Score: Perhaps 14/20

Without deciding the relative importance of these things we might score Ambiance 7.5, Service 8, Wine list 6, Food 5, Presentation 3, Returnability 2 Value 7 all out of 10

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