On Friday, we got a 5:30 reservation for the following day, and practically fasted in anticipation so that we could be as hungry as possible. We drove in from White Plains, where we'd been staying with Adam's parents. The valet parking was a nice touch, especially since, at $29, it was about the cost of a garage and much more convenient on a rainy night. As the first step in Batali's bid for four stars, the room is much more grand than any of his other restaurants. It has a forties glamour, with dark, curved railings flanking the wide staircases (going both down to the wine cellar and up to the mezzanine) and the edge of the seating areas on both floors. The ceiling is two stories high, and the color scheme is all black, brown, and tan, including the geometrically tiled floor. We were shown to a table on the first floor against the windows (gauzy curtains semi-obscured the view of alley-like 16th Street). While the room is massive and obviously seats significantly more than Babbo, the tables are well spaced and the room doesn't feel crowded. I liked the decor, but Adam thought it was too stuffy and formal, reminding him of a hotel lobby. The piano music coming from the bar area was, I'll admit, a bit much.
So, by the time we sit down, everyone is famished. We start with a glass of white wine each. Wine is sold by the (rather expensive) glass instead of by the quarto as at Babbo. The cheapest ones seemed to be about $10, with most hovering in the $15 range and some going more than twice that high. I had a glass of the Quinterella (or something like that), and Adam and Helen both had something that was printed on the bill as "Fiano." Fine, but nothing astounding. Bread was actually very good. The warm-from-the-oven assortment included mini foccacia, baguettes, and crispy breadstick-like pieces. While Adam and I didn't try the whipped lardo, Helen said that it was good, bacony and smooth.
After some menu translation, we settled on four antipasti, three pastas, a risotto, and two entrees. It was a bit too much in the end, but not overwhelming, and we wanted to try as many things as possible. The waitress was very helpful in telling us which dishes did not include meat (not many, especially in the pasta section) and very accommodating when we asked about ordering a la carte off the tasting menu.
The antipasti course was the best in overall quality of dishes. Everyone seemed to agree that the "Carciofi alla Romana" was our least favorite. The artichokes were too crunchy for my taste (not in the nicely roasted way), requiring the use of a knife to cut and seeming barely cooked. They bore little resemblance to the deliciously roasted, marinated vegetables we remembered from our trip to Rome a year and a half ago. The pickled red onions were good, though, and the remaining liquid of olive oil, lemon, and probably some vinegar, with the spice of a little red pepper, was great for bread dipping. The "Fungi Misti with Puntarelle" was Adam and Helen's favorite, though I was torn between that and the "Cauliflower Sformato with Skate Salad." The assorted mushrooms were both tender and crisp in parts, with an array of earthy flavors expected with different varieties of good quality mushrooms. The vinaigrette included anchovies, which worried me (not an anchovy fan) but was actually fine. The bitter puntarelle was surprisingly good, especially since I normally dislike bitter greens. The cauliflower sformato was a cylinder of light, creamy flavor, and the skate salad (which included cooked spinach, grapefruit supremes, and small bits of cauliflower) was a nice mix of flavors and textures. I think I liked this so much because the sformato reminded me of an extremely airy quiche or even (and I know Adam and Helen found this a bit horrifying) a very dressed up version of one of my favorite childhood comfort foods, broccoli casserole. Our fourth appetizer was "Swordfish Carpaccio with Lemon and Borage," ordered off the seafood tasting menu. We all enjoyed this one, but didn't really rank it among the other appetizers because it is very difficult to compare directly. Good fish carpaccio is more about the quality of the fish rather than an innovative mixture of ingredients or skilled cooking. It is recommended if you love raw fish, but not if you're looking to be surprised by the dish.
Our pasta choices were, in the end, very simple. According to our waitress, there were only three options that did not include meat, so we ordered those. However, if you do eat meat, much of the menu will likely require translation. We asked, for example, what "cibreo" (with the pici) was, and were told it was a combination of testicles, coxcombs, and some other animal part that I missed amid my suppressed giggles. Yes, apparently I have a twelve-year-old's sense of humor. Oh well. One thing about the pasta menu that we did find a bit puzzling was the option at the bottom of the list. For $23 and $27/person respectively, you can have a choice of two or three pastas for the table. It is unclear to me why any party of more than a person or two would do this, as it just doesn't make economic sense if you would order a dish a person anyway. There are only two pastas that cost $27 or more, and we were told that the "for the table" portions per person were "slightly less than a third" of a normal order. Also, the waitress said that they would split normal orders between plates if we requested it. In the end, our three pastas ended up averaging less than $23 a person and we were happy to pass our plates around the table.
So, on to what we actually ordered. Helen was insistent, even before we realized how our meatlessness limited our options, on the "Spaghetti with Crab, Scallions, and Jalapeno." This sounds like a very innovative combination, and it was good. I like the prominent use of scallion in many dishes we tried, and the spice of the jalapeno added an unusual heat to a pasta dish. The pasta was a bit on the al dente side, however, and the crab, which didn't seem to be of the most overwhelming good quality (not bad, just not amazingly fresh) didn't seem to add a great deal. I think it would have been just as good (and probably a good bit cheaper) to have the dish without the crab. The "Ricotta and Chard Nudi with Caciocavallo" was very good, but in the way of comfortable, homey dishes that are exactly what you expect them to be. The butter could have been a little more browned and the grating of caciocavello could have been a little more generous, but the gnudi were nicely plump and pillowy. Caciocavello is a mild cow's milk cheese, and not head cheese, as I had guessed from my knowledge of other ingredients used on the menu and a shot-in-the-dark attempt at translation from a language I do not speak. The "Gnocchi with Passato and Pesto" got a bit of a three bears review. Adam thought the passato (a tomato sauce) was among the best he'd ever had, I thought it wasn't quite sweet enough, and Helen thought it was too sweet. I had assumed from the menu that it would be a mixed tomato and basil sauce, but instead half the gnocchi were dressed with the passato and half with a thick pesto. Still, the gnocchi were a perfect texture and this dish falls into the same simple but good category as the gnudi.
Before our main courses, we had the "Risoto with lobster." All the risottos are listed as for two or more, and this one served up a hearty portion for three. The flavors of this dish were excellent, rich and red with nice chunks of lobster and a good use of sliced scallion for a fresh, oniony tang. As a testament to the kitchen's risotto-making skills, however, it was a sad disappointment. The rice was too crunchy, and excess liquid made it almost soupy rather than the thickly creamy as risotto ought to be.
Sometime before the entrees, Helen and Adam both ordered a glass of red wine. The waitress got descriptions and they ordered without looking at the menu again, though she did offer to bring it. Adam's fine Barola, we later learned, bore an unmerited $35 price tag. Helen got a Bastianich Vespa Rosso, which came out of a new bottle and needed to sit for a bit to mellow a scotch-like sharpness.
By the time entrees arrived, Helen and I were starting to struggle with fullness and I was relieved we had only ordered two. The black bass came on a bed of mushrooms (there were also crispy bits on top), tomato, and a bright green scallion puree with some larger scallion pieces in it. This dish was probably the best of the entire meal. Again, I loved the use of those scallions. The "Cod with Hake Mantecato and Clam Salad" vied with the artichokes for the worst of the meal. The Cod itself was plain, on the mantecato, which was a creamy pool that had a nice texture but lacked strong flavor. The clam salad turned out to be three clams on their shell (which were a bit fishy), a few pieces of dark red grapefruit, and small slices of artichoke. This is one of those dishes that is decent if you get a bit of everything in the bite, but once we'd finished the so-called salad, no one was eager to eat the remaining, rather boring fish.
Before dessert, we did the selection of three parmesians (2 year, 4 year, and 6 year). I was disappointed that there wasn't a more extensive selection of cheeses (especially since Otto has a good one), but the parmesians were good. Condiments were tasty: a spicy marinated pear slice with horseraddish, a wonderful 25-year-old balsamic, a lambrusco jelly, and a piece of honeycomb in a pool of rich honey.
Nothing jumped out at me from the dessert menu, which I always find disappointing. We were tempted by the zabaglione, which we could see being made is copper pots at a station next to our table, but decided against it after Helen chose the "Budino di Fichi: Warm Fig Pudding, Pomegranate Sorbetto, Zabalione, Salty Caramel." This was our favorite of the desserts. While the caramel was not a prominent flavor, the cake was moist and rich and the sorbet was good. The "Kremeschnitte: Semolina Mousse, Celery Marmellata, Celery-Apple Sorbetto" was the most interesting dessert. The semolina mouse had a thick, almost gritty (but not in a bad way) texture that was surprisingly good, and it was sandwiched between these great cookies made from puffed pastry that had been weighted down during baking so that they were crisp and flaky. That's a baking trick I will definitely try at home. The celery-apple sorbetto was very light and refreshing, though the candied celery wasn't particularly good. Celery, while creative in a dessert, is not really an ingredient that I ever think adds much to a dish. My least favorite dessert was was the "Palacinke: Chesnut Crepes, Persimmon Semifreddo, Rum Glassato." The crepes were pretty plain, not stuffed with anything. The rum flavor was too strong for my taste and overwhelmed the semifreddo and crepes.
Finally, after dessert, the extensive petite four cart was rolled over. This was a meal highlight, in my opinion. There were probably about 12-15 different treats, and we asked to try all of them. My favorites were a light, crisp orange meringue, sour cherry and passion fruit gelees, and a mint pastille. More interesting offerings included rosemary shortbread, pignoli nut cookies, and anise biscotti, though the pignoli cookies were the only of these that we particularly liked. There were some rich chocolate-based offerings if that's your preference (it wasn't ours).
After lingering over tea and petite fours, we didn't leave our table until 10:00PM. Although we were a bit late for our reservation, that was still over three and a half hours of solid eating plus the time we remained even after the check was paid. Service was attentive throughout the meal (the staff is very extensive), but at no time did we feel rushed through our meal or out the door. The star-struck foodie in us was minorly thrilled by Lidia's almost constant wandering through the dining room, and even an appearance by Mario at a neighboring table. However, given this celeb presence, we were disappointed in the food. Nothing was bad, and some things were very good, but it was not what we had hoped for or would expect from a place that covets four stars. I'm willing to acknowledge the possibility that if we'd eaten his meat dishes, it would have been an entirely different experience. Still, given that it is more expensive (though only slightly) and more formal than any of Batali's other restaurants, if you're looking for great Italian, go to Babbo. I am glad to have tried it, but won't be heading back anytime soon.