I was one of the lucky winners of Chow’s Ultimate Day of Dining competition (Lunch). My prize was $500 towards one meal at any restaurant in the US. I invited my best friend (also a chowhound) and my boyfriend to join me at Babbo and we had an incredible time! Here is an account of our evening:
We had reservations at 6:30 and when we walked in and gave our name, the maître d' knew right away that we were here for the Chow dinner. We were sat downstairs right in front of the large round table holding the wine and cheese. I had requested an upstairs table, so I asked our hostess if one was available. The maître d' came over and said that he had spoken to Mario earlier about our dinner, and that Mario had wanted us to sit at his favorite table so that we would be very well taken care of. Now, I’m not sure if the maître d' was just saying this to make me happy (and blush), but I’m going to pretend that he wasnt lying so that I can indulge my fantasy :)
After sitting, we were immediately served a very nice crostini topped with spicy garbanzo beans. It was very simple, but the extra spice made it really enjoyable on an empty stomach. Soon after, our waiter came over and took our order. He was very, very nice and really knowledgeable about the different dishes (I'm so sorry I can't remember his name. I'm really terrible with names!). We had originally ordered both the beef cheek ravioli and the braised beef, but he cautioned us that these dishes are very similar. He suggested the duck instead, which ended up being the favorite dish of the table! I love it when waiters make suggestions without being prompted because they know the food very well and its always nice to let someone else take the reins.
We began the night with two antipastos: Armandino’s salumi and the Warm Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a 3-Minute Egg. The salumi was wonderful. The Culatello was surprisingly delicate in flavor which I didn’t expect, but enjoyed. The Finocchiona was excellent. I am not a fan of fennel or fennel seeds, but I have to admit that the seeds were amazing against the strong flavor of the meat and pepper. The only criticism I have about the salumi plate was that the bread was quite burnt.
The Warm Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a 3-Minute Egg was a real treat for me because I had never had Lamb’s tongue before. The texture of the lamb was wonderful and the flavor was extremely strong. I actually think that the flavor of the lamb overpowered the chanterelles, which is a shame because I love chanterelles, but we all still loved the dish. As for the 3-minute egg, I wish it would have been more runny. I’m not sure if the heat of the dish cooked it more, but the yolk was almost completely cooked. I think that with a runnier egg, this dish would be near perfect! We really loved it.
Next, we ordered three pasta dishes. The kitchen was terrific and split them three ways and served each dish one at a time so that we weren’t passing our plates around. Our first dish was the Spaghettini with Spicy Budding Chives and a One Pound Lobster. To me, this dish was perfection. I actually don’t think it even needed the lobster. The pasta was cooked PERFECTLY and the red sauce had just the right amount of spice and heat to contrast with the coolness of the herbs. It felt like such a simple, rustic dish and the flavor profiles complimented each other perfectly which is what made it incredible. As for the lobster, it was lacking in flavor and might have been slightly overcooked. Perhaps it would have worked better if it was poached in butter? I’m not sure, but regardless of the lobster, this dish was my personal favorite.
The second pasta dish that came out was the Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage. This dish inspired me to utilize my mint plant more! The spicy lamb stood up to the mint incredible well and the flavors were spot on. I also loved that each ravioli had a single, whole mint leaf inside. It was a really nice treat and added a lot of color when you cut into the ravioli. My only complaint was that I wish there was a tiny bit more of the lamb filling inside the ravioli.
The last pasta dish was the Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles. I understand what our waiter meant when he said it would taste similar to the braised beef. This dish was very nice. There weren’t any flavors that really blew me over, but it was a very nice dish.
Next, we moved on to the main courses. We ordered the Veal loin wrapped in prosciutto (which was a special that night); Wild Striped Bass with Charred Leeks, Warm Treviso and Pancetta Vinaigrette; and the Duck with “Scafata,” House-Made Pancetta and Brovada. All three plates arrived at once, which is probably a good thing or else we would have been there all night! I started out with the Bass which was cooked perfectly. It had a really nice char on the outside from being pan-seared and the inside was flakey and really, really moist. The flavor of the fish was simple, which is why it blended so well with the pancetta and leeks. The leeks added a really rich buttery flavor which worked really well with the fish and the pancetta. It ranks as being one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had.
The second dish I had was the duck. What can I even say about the duck? It was perfect! When it arrived the waiter drizzled a grape reduction sauce on the plate which had me slightly worried because I kept picturing those grape juice boxes we got in grade school. However, it won me over immediately. It wasn’t too intense, but added the perfect amount of sweetness which really enhanced the flavor of the duck. Additionally, the thin layer of crispy fat on the duck was heaven. If this wasn’t enough, there were small cubes of pancetta around the duck that were such a treat. This dish was phenomenal.
The last dish I had was the veal wrapped in prociutto. I really wish I would have had this before the duck, because by this time I was getting really full. I think that the richness of the duck dish took a lot away from the veal dish, which is a shame because my two friends really enjoyed it. I did have a few bites of it and the flavors were very nice. The veal really soaked up the flavor of the prosciutto adding a nice natural saltiness to the meat. Maybe my friend can post more about this dish, because I think this is when I started entering a food coma.
By the time we finished our last dish, we still had about a half a bottle of wine left over, so we decided to get the selection of seven cheeses. I think saying the word “cheese” gave me my second wind, because when the cheese came out I was ready! I cannot remember the name of each cheese well enough to give it a description, but overall I was extremely happy with the cheese plate. My best friend and I go cheese tasting at the Formaggio Kitchen about once a month, so cheese is not new to us. With that in mind, this was a very thoughtful cheese plate with a really, really nice progression. Of the two that I do remember quite well, the Coach farm triple cream was a clear favorite and the Parmigiano Reggiano nearly knocked me off my feet. (thank goodness it was last!)
As for wine we had 2 bottles. They were:
Wine #1: Trinchevo Baobera d'Asti "Vigna del Noce" 2000 (Piemonte)
Wine #2: Montecalvi "Montecalvi Rosso" 2001 (Toscana)
My boyfriend also ordered a glass of Schiavenza Barolo 2000 (Piemonte)
I'm not going to pretend to know a lot about wine because I'm very new to wine, especially red wines. The sommelier was exceptional and somehow he was able to decipher my horrible knowledge of wine. The second bottle was incredible!
After our cheese and wine, we ordered three desserts: the Chocolate Hazelnut Cake, the Ricotta Cheesecake and the Assortment of Gelati. The Hazelnut cake was really wonderful and I know I would have enjoyed it even more if I wasn’t so full. The presentation was cute, like a fallen soufflé, with the outside cake like and the inside moist and warm. The ricotta cheesecake was surprisingly light which made it a real pleasure to eat after the heavy meal. I’m pretty sure the strawberries were briefly soaked in a hot simple syrup which really extracted a lot of flavor and went very nicely with the cheesecake. A nice final touch was a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Lastly, the gelati came in three flavors: coffee (I think?), strawberry and olive oil. I did not try the coffee flavored one because I really dislike all things coffee. The strawberry was nice and simple. The olive oil gelati was what really blew me away. If I wasn’t told that it was olive oil flavored, I might not have guessed it because it is very subtle. Once you know, however, you can really pick out the flavors of the olive oil which jump out at you through the sweetness. It was a really fun an interesting flavor and I’m looking forward to having it again!
After our dessert, we rested for a little while with a bit of tea. By this time it was about 10pm. Then, our waiter came over and said, “as you know, the bill has already been taken care of.” That is a sentence that I definitely wouldn’t mind hearing again! It was a wonderful experience and I’m so thrilled that I decided to go to Babbo. The meal, on a whole, was really amazing and the staff was so warm and helpful. The thing that I loved the most about both the food and the staff was how unpretentious everything was. My friend is a med school student, my boyfriend is a graduate student and I work for a small non profit; in other words, we are not the most glamorous group of people. Despite this, we all felt extremely comfortable in the setting at Babbo and never once felt out of place. I still feel so lucky to have won this prize and I’m so happy that I’ve been able to share this experience with my fellow chowhounds!
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