Hot on the heels of one Batali eatery to another: my sister's friend was able to secure a last-minute reservation at Babbo, the Italian restaurant at the heart of Batali's chain, feted in Zagat as the top Italian restaurant in the City, and (possibly because of that) one of the most difficult places at which to secure a reservation - usually you have to reserve exactly one month before you want to eat. So I was very fortunate indeed to be able to try Babbo on this trip, and kudos to S's resourcefulness in getting us a spot two hours before the meal.
Our reservation was at 6.15pm, and after a frenzied trip on the Subway, I managed to find my way to the restaurant. While the ground floor dining area is somewhat dark, the second floor was suffused with light from a large skylight, and the blinding whiteness of the tablecloths was softened by a large plant fixture in the middle of the room.
A common complaint is that Babbo's service is often "rushed", and it certainly was very prompt: within minutes of our being seated we had a waiter on hand explaining the menu to us and inquiring if we wanted to try Babbo's special cocktails. While not so much rushed as rapid, a more languid service would have been helpful, especially because Babbo's menu is quite extensive; filled with dishes that tantalise every tastebud. Here there are at least ten different types of pasta, and meats to serve every possible ethical inclination, from squab to rabbit to veal, and five minutes is certainly not sufficient to come to an optimal decision.
However, our waiter made up for it by being the consummate salesman; extremely knowledgeable about almost every single dish, he made our choice even more difficult with his evocative language and seductive imagery. The spicy limoncello vinaigrette that accompanied the grilled octopus, he said, provided a wonderful undertone of sweetness that just lifts the entire dish, and the lamb's tongue salad, while not a usual dish, paired delightfully with the chanterelle mushrooms. What I was not pleased with, however, was the fact that though I had requested to retain a copy of the menu, I was told they needed the menus for other tables, but he would bring me back a menu at a later time. Unfortunately, that menu never arrived.
After placing our orders, we were given some complimentary chickpea bruschetta, which, while inventive, simply could not match the freshness of the original. I found the chickpeas somewhat chalky, without enough flavour or complexity to bring the amuse-bouche to life.
Very quickly, however, our orders arrived: we were sharing the grilled octopus; the warm lamb's tongue vinaigrette, which came served with a poached egg; and a plate of Proscuitto San Daniele. The grilled octopus seemed rather charred, and consequently slightly tough, and I was not able to detect the wonderful sweetness of the limoncello. The lamb's tongue was, however, very enjoyable – the tongue was firm, yet supple, meaty and delicious. Paired with strips of confited tomato and the runny poached egg, the whole dish worked very well and hit all the right tastes. No complaints with the third appetiser: hard to go wrong with prosciutto, especially if it's paper-thin San Daniele.
Mains were a steaming plate of black spaghetti with rock shrimp, spicy salami calabrese and green chiles; beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver and black truffles; and rabbit with braised leeks, pancetta and carrot vinaigrette.
While the spaghetti was perfectly al dente, I was somewhat puzzled as to the combination of shrimp and spicy calabrese. The heat from the calabrese completely masked any taste of the prawns, and the end result reminded me very much of having pasta with hae bee hiam, the spicy, dried ground prawn paste that is common in Singaporean cuisine. The beef cheek ravioli was redolent with strong flavours from the red wine the beef cheeks had been braised in, enhanced with the rich, slippery unctuousness of the liver, though I was disappointed that the raviolis hadn't been more substantially filled – they looked rather limp and flat, and not much of the beef cheek itself came through. The rabbit was a winner though, with small delicate bones, and lots of soft, plump flesh, sitting atop a bed of beans and pancetta lardons.
As we were due to have dessert elsewhere, we skipped the final course, though other reviews have praised Babbo's dessert offerings.
Perhaps because of the expectations engendered by Babbo's exclusiveness, as well as how good all the dishes looked on paper, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the eventual outcome. Babbo is good, no doubt, but perhaps not spectacular. A pity, given its reputation, and it may be that a wider tasting from among its pastas and main courses will do more justice to a much talked-about establishment.
110 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10011
Tel: 212 777 0303