I feel liberated -- I'm officially done with Babbo. My report of my last meal there is below, and the pictures are here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/nyc/b...
This wasn’t my first visit to Babbo. It was, without a doubt, my last.
But I don’t blame the cooks. Tough tentacles of grilled octopus are not the end of the world. A dry rabbit loin was the least of our worries.
I can’t fault the staff, either. Our waiter was a perfectly nice fellow, present but not overbearing. Marla Priest, the sommelier, glowed with a perpetual smile. And nearly everyone else we encountered that evening was friendly. My only service gripe was with the sottovoce dish descriptions we received as runners dropped off our plates and fled the scene. But worse crimes have been committed.
This was my last visit because of John Mainieri, the bald-headed Minos of maître d’s. I felt his tail slither around us soon as we approached the podium. “The tasting menu is not an option, and we need the table back by 8:00″ was his judgment. Hitting traffic on the Long Island Expressway was our sin. Of course, I had called to apologize and inform the restaurant of our late arrival. But when a female voice promised a transfer to Mr. Mainieri, I was instead serenaded by Luciano Pavarotti for ten eternal minutes before I gave up. A second call went unanswered.
The truth is, Adam and I arrived forty minutes late, and that would put any maître d’ in a tough position on a busy Saturday night. But there were 1,000 more tactful ways to handle that situation. A friend of ours had arrived twenty minutes earlier and offered to sit down and order for us. In any scenario, we would’ve gladly vacated the table at 8:00 to finish the meal at the bar. And simply shuffling us to a later table would have been perfectly acceptable. But no such solution was proffered.
I couldn’t even solicit a smile from Mr. Mainieri. But maybe you’re a nicer person than I am, in which case he and his pug might accept you on Facebook. They have 156 friends.
I was slightly incredulous, but very hungry, so I didn’t put up a fight with him. In any case we sat down, and it took us all of two minutes to order.
It took nearly thirty for the appetizers to arrive. The Pig Foot “Milanese” with Rice Beans and Arugula ($15) was my favorite among them. Crisp, meaty and fatty, I only thought it a bit precious for the price. I suppose precious is not often a term often used to describe Mario Batali or his food, but there you go.
A dish of Warm Tripe “alla Parmigiana” ($11) smelled, well, a bit rank. The texture was pleasantly tender, though. The simple tomato sauce was bright and slightly sweet, the nutty parmigiano-reggiano a nice touch, and the grilled bread, just the accompaniment that such a dish calls for. But I’ve had tripe countless times when that particular intestinal odor has been absent. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it was bothersome.
A friend’s Asparagus “Milanese” with Duck Egg and Parmigiano ($15) tasted fine enough, but looked like a first-day culinary school creation. The egg was either “poached” in one of those infomercial steamers or simply cut with a ring mold, but either way it looked silly in a restaurant that — aside from the soundtrack — has at least some serious ambition.
Adam chose the Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrette ($15). On other visits, we’d each proclaimed this the finest octopus dish in memory, but this one begged to be forgotten. It was rough, rubbery, and dressed with a sickly sweet condiment.
Pasta has always been the restaurant’s strong (and some argue only) suit, so we ordered five of them. Our friend had the Garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati” ($22), with which she was perfectly pleased. I stole just a small taste, and thought the condimento tasty but the pasta just a bit thicker than I might have preferred.
Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage ($20) are a Batali classic. Classic like William Faulkner, that is — required reading but not something I particularly enjoy. This dish was more about the herb than the lamb, and it somehow brought Indian mint chutney to mind. As much as I love to travel, that wasn’t a continent I was looking to explore on this particular evening.
The Sweet Potato “Lune” with Sage and Amaretti ($19), were, as always, very good. But the autumnal filling of butternut squash is, in my opinion, slightly smoother and sweeter. I would say I’ll come back for this dish in the fall, but I won’t. My loss, I suppose.
Maybe the Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffle ($23) were not the thing for this hot, rainy day. They’re better suited for a cold, rainy one. But regardless of the forecast, this dish was grey and drab and in dire need of some kind of acidity.
The Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Spicy Salami Calabrese and Green Chiles ($25) was mine, all mine. And I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest dish of pasta I’ve ever been served (the atrocious Carmine’s excepted). Something about the combination of pork, crustacean, and scallion was reminiscent of Chinese dumplings. And this time, I was happy flying to Asia on Alitalia. The noodles had the dark, almost murky richness of squid ink. The condiment was peppery with a slight natural sweetness. I might’ve preferred a stronger kick of chile, but that’s really splitting hairs over a dish I surely enjoyed.
Among the secondi, I again went classic Batali with the Spicy Two Minute Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style ($24), a dish I had not yet sampled on other visits. The mental image of Mario Batali as a lifeguard is not a pretty one, but with this recipe he might at least pass for Sicilian. Redolent of that island, this stew was a stage for tomato, caper and olive alike. The calamari were bouncy but not rubbery, firm but not chewy. And when the menu said spicy, it meant it. It was a pleasing and persistent prickle that made this a dish I just wanted to keep eating.
Adam’s Rabbit with Peas, Babbo Pancetta and Carrot Vinaigrette ($28) likewise made a quick impression. The loin was disastrously dry, and after half a bite, his face told me he’d given up. He’s never been one to send back a dish, but I’ve never been one to let someone continue eating something they’re clearly not enjoying, so I prodded him to say something. The waiter handled this gracefully, asking what exactly he did not like about it, and offering a replacement.
Despite a slightly overcooked interior [EXCERPT REMOVED BY ORIGINAL POSTER], Adam was more pleased with the Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads with Sweet and Sour Onions, Duck Bacon and Membrillo Vinegar ($27). Or at least he would have been, had he been given the time to enjoy it.
But indeed, here the story of our evening gets better. Adam was working on the sweetbreads when who should arrive but another friend planning to join us just for dessert. We were seated at a four-top, mind you, with plenty of room for a fourth chair. Yet our friend, and thus our group, encountered two problems. First, Mr. Mainieri refused to direct her to our table, even after she had explained that she was only joining us for dessert. And second, she was refused a chair and forced to stand awkwardly by the table once she’d had been grudgingly pointed to it. Worse yet, a bus boy kindly went to get her a chair only to have one of Mainieri’s minions, who had been hovering silently near our table throughout the meal, come to snatch it back.
I was speechless, and Adam was furious. Preferring not to see the poor girl embarrassed, he dropped his credit card on the table and the two of them left.
This would normally be time for some of Gina DePalma’s wonderful desserts. But the Chair Nazi approached the table again: “I understand you had a prior arrangement with the maître d…” There was no time to even look at the dessert menu, he said, much less order anything. It was 7:50pm. And pitiful petit fours were our pittance.
Mario Batali has a claque that spans the globe, and I once might have even claimed a vocal spot among its members. But this evening’s incident was far from the first service issue I’ve encountered at one of his and partner Joe Bastianich’s establishments, and I’d rather not even get into those right now. So I’ve decided I’m done.
I’m done talking to managers, writing letters, and making phone calls. I’m done being squeezed into one of three nightly seatings so Batali & Co. can pad their wallets most efficiently. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me this many times… and I just don’t like you.