I was in NY this past weekend and wanting to make the most of it dined at Babbo and Daniel on consecutive nights. This may be heresy, but I was ever so slightly disappointed in both.
As advertised, Babbo was boldly flavorful, though I thought just slightly prone to saltiness. Antipasti, primi, and secondi all ranged comfortably from good to delicious. The grilled octopus I thought especially scrumptious and the fried sweetbread dusted with fennel especially interesting. Thus we were utterly surprised -- even shocked -- by the complete mediocrity of the desserts: saffron scented panna cotta and toasted almond upside down cake. No real play of flavor or texture, and not even a particularly attractive presentation. Frankly, I make better desserts in my own kitchen. We left the restaurant with our tentative elation thoroughly punctured.
Daniel was a more subtle disappointment. The room was magnificent; the service welcoming and competent; the cuisine consistently impeccable. What was the problem? It's very hard to say. I felt a certain lack of warmth and spontaneity, as if the food were coming off a magnificently tuned conveyor belt. Everything perfect, but nothing that performed a little tap dance on the tongue. The evening was extremely pleasant -- even worth the money -- but I was not as dazzled as I expected to be. By a very comfortable margin my most transporting restaurant experience remains Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons outside Oxford, England.
At both Babbo and Daniel I thought the pace of things was somewhat rushed. The food came out and the plates were cleared very quickly. I would guess that both meals clocked in somewhat under two hours. This may be a function of New York restaurant economics, but it took me a bit by surprise and left me feeling less relaxed than should have been the case. In this regard, I very much more enjoyed a recent meal at Chanterelle.
About Payard, where I indulged in a quick $25 pig out, I can't say enough: I liken everything he does to chamber music, flavor and texture wonderfully playing off each other. I'm tempted to say that this is the most wonderful food in New York, better than any haute cuisine I've tried, and better even than the great low-budget classics like Lombardi's and 2nd Avenue Deli. When I married two years ago Payard made the wedding cake -- a sour cherry and pistachio mousse "chinon." We joke that nobody remembers the bride, but everybody remembers the cake.
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