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NYC musts- Yasuda, Babbo, Jean Georges (long)

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NYC musts- Yasuda, Babbo, Jean Georges (long)

Porthos | May 15, 2006 12:44 AM

On my semi-annual culinary return to NYC from the west coast, I pondered what I missed most about NYC and decided that it was obviously Sushi Yasuda, excellent Italian, and upscale fine dining. Naturally this lead me to make reservations at Yasuda, Babbo, and Jean-George for dinner (interspersed with Lombardi’s, Balthazar, Menchanko-Tei, and Katsuhama for lunch)

Babbo:

I really miss good Italian food out west. Cal-italian in SF does have its merits but for pasta, one must pay homage to the undisputed king…Mario Batali. I had Lupa reservations until a Babbo opening at 9:45 miraculously appeared.

They would not allow us to order two separate tastings (ie. a pasta and a traditional tasting). So we decided to go the choose-your-own-adventure route. We started with the lambs tongue with chanterelles, grilled porcini wrapped with pancetta, and carcoffi ala romania (grilled baby artichokes).

For pastas, my companion and I went with a special fettuccini with pancetta, artichokes, and lemon zest and the orecchiette with rapini, sweet sausage, and a tomato sauce. The fettuccini was very light and a celebration of spring. The housemade orecchiette was stunning. Firm, and perfect in so many ways. I took special care to make sure not a single orecchiette remained on the plate.

The portions are huge. I’m a pretty big eater but even I was starting to feel winded. We reluctantly cancelled the spring lamb with ramps pasta and had the nettle pappardelle with wild boar ragu. The thick pappardelle was toothsome and vibrant with nettle. I was near bursting but it was absolutely delicious. Genius even. The vibrant spring-ness of the nettle with the rich ragu.

We had some great desserts but my I can’t remember what they were given my pasta induced stupor.


Sushi Yasuda:

My entire trip would have been a failure if I did not have sushi in front of Yasuda. I called 5 weeks in advance, and confirmed twice to make sure they had my seat in front of Yasuda reserved. I cut short a beautiful day at the Met to ensure I was there by 7:20 sharp (for my 7:30 reservation) so there was NO chance they would give my priceless seat away.

I arrived with a friend who actually did not like nigiri. She’s from Hawaii, lived in LA for 3 years, and SF for another 3. She said the rice always bothered her and she always preferred sashimi. I don’t know what she’s talking about either. I figured if anyone could rescue this poor soul, it would be the master Yasuda.

We started with the usual arctic char and New Zealand sea trout pairing. I’ve had this so many times but the rich oiliness never fails to please. I turned to my non-nigiri eating friend and saw that she was grinning ear to ear. “Oh my...” Yeah, that’s right. 5 minutes and Yasuda has converted this non-nigiri eater into yet another acolyte. My little sister said it best when she said, “You can’t help but smile.”

After that came the wild white salmon with chu toro pairing (Yasuda had run out of kama toro during lunch. Oh the humanity!). Again, a deliberation of oily fish against oily fish. Next, was live scallop, mirugai, and scallop reproductive sac for me, and kinmedai, kanpachi, and one of Yasuda’s Japanese “fish with no name from Japan” for my friend since she was allergic to shellfish. “In the snapper family,” Yasuda said with a smile when we asked about the fish with no name. Next, fresh grilled anago and then a fresh grilled fresh water eel that was called “shiro-something”. Amazing. My previously non-nigiri eating friend’s smile was so wide now, I was afraid she’d split her face in two. I hadn’t had kinmedai before but I knew it was rare and so I asked Yasuda to bring an order for me also. The fish was soft and very delicate in flavor. I learn something new again at Yasuda. I then had Maine and Santa Barbara eel side by side. It was the last of the Santa Barbara eel and the roe was a little broken up, the first imperfection I’ve seen at Yasuda. The Maine uni was smaller, darker, and perfect in shape. Side by side, I realized that the Santa Barbara uni was softer and sweeter and that the Maine uni was more firm and floral. I’ve had both hundreds of times but when you have it back to back, it really makes you appreciate the difference between the two. Next, a little walk on the mundane. Ika and flounder fin. I was a little disappointed until I noticed Yasuda score both about 40 times and scrape the flounder fin until it was perfectly white. Both were very soft and mild on the tongue. Definitely a big difference from the ika and flounder fin one usually gets at a lesser restaurant. I realized Yasuda’s genius in giving both a similar texture so you can focus on the subtle taste and texture of both.

Next came aji, gen saba, and sardine. The aji was amazingly sweet and crispy while the gen saba (described in the NYTimes as mackeral toro) was soft and luxurious. The sardine was firm and completely fresh. Yasuda finished us with a nigiri of baby chives to cleanse the palate and made a minced toro roll to finish.

We had a few enlightening conversations with Yasuda. Apparently, his knife was made by a family of knife makers in Japan who have been making knives since the 9th century. They still hammer the steel by hand and take about 1 week to make a knife. We talked about Morihiro-san in LA of Mori Sushi. The rumors of Mori training with Yasuda were false. He was an assistant who worked “upstairs” while Yasuda worked alone “downstairs”. One of Yasuda’s regulars came in. A born and raised New Yorker who was fluent in Mandarin and Japanese...so much so that he and Yasuda traded jokes in Japanese. “I come here at least once a month,” the-luckiest-man-alive said. “I think it’s the best in the city.” Me too. And judging from my friend’s constant gushing and praise throughout the evening, so did she.

Jean-George:

No visit to NYC is complete with a fine dining option. We decided on the Spring Tasting with wine pairing ($125 for the tasting, $90 for the pairing).

The food was excellent and the service was flawless. We were initially on a 4-hour pace for the tasting, but my dining companion came down with some serious allergy problems. They noticed this and sped up the pace of the last 2 courses without hesitation. Most of the tasting was captured on camera and I’ll post that as soon as it is available. For now, I’ll do a quick rundown (may be revised once I look at and post the pictures).

Amuse: peekytoe crab on brioche, white asparagus puree layered with raspberry vinegar at the bottom (brilliant), and grilled fava bean.

1 hour coddled egg with brioche and caviar. The egg was cooked so long that it had the taste and consistency of cheese. An amazing transmutation.

Kanpachi sashimi with yuzu cream, Muscat grapes, and sprinkled with mint, tarragon, and chervil. The dish consisted of 8 generous slices of sashimi (unlike the 2 slices given at the The Dining Room in SF and called a “course”). The dish worked very well. On the 3rd bite, you notice a faint tingling in the back of your throat and realize that some sort of chili was also present in the cream. The tingling never progressed to outright spiciness and it was a very clever ploy to involve multiple senses.

Asparagus with morels. Perfectly cooked, and sweet plump spears of asparagus were topped with morels bathed in a rich white-wine cream sauce. A classic but nevertheless perfect celebration of spring.

Butter poached lobster with mangoes, toasted almonds, and lemongrass noodles for me. And the infamous turbot with Chateau Chalon sauce for my friend with the shellfish allergy. The butter poached lobster was perfectly cooked and the sweetness was appreciated with the mangoes. The toasted almonds added a nice flavor and textural contrast. Not every exciting, but well executed. The turbot was a flawless piece of fish served with that most fragrant Chateau Chalon sauce...I remember being told that the wine was $50/bottle retail. Not too shabby.

At this point, they noticed that my friend was getting some bad sniffles from her allergies and appropriately sped up the pace. Brilliant. As if they read my mind. They brought out the veal tenderloin with mashed purple potatoes. The sauce was a very interesing black olive oil sauce. The tenderloin was wonderfully soft...almost like a piece of sushi, and the black olive oil sauce made this dish the first interesting meat dish in a long time.

Finally, dessert. Broken up into categories, there was chocolate, exotic fruit, and citrus. My companion went with the chocolate which consisted of molten chocolate cake, and 3 other celebrations of decadent chocolate. My citrus dessert tasting was the same. Afterwards came the parade of petites four, housemade marshmallows, chocolates. A wonderful experience in all aspects. I will post the pictures (sans veal and dessert pictures due to camera battery issues) as soon as they become available.

I'm already planning on my return visit in fall...I wonder if Yasuda will take my reservation now.

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