Judging by the unremarkable exterior on Waverley Place, Babbo looks like any sleepy neighborhood trattoria, but stepping inside plants you indisputably in one of the buzziest and busiest restaurants in town.
The throng at the bar was four deep but we eventually negotiated our way through to take our table across a first floor dining room full of post-festive cheer and a rocking soundtrack ranging from Talking Heads to Elvis Costello.
We kicked off our long-awaited dinner with a glass of Bastianich Brut, a slightly underwhelming house fizz. Along with everyone else we were given a complimentary bruschetta featuring chickpeas in some sort of balsamic reduction – we had to guess, because it wasn’t explained.
I read online that the same amuse bouche was given to diners back in 2003. There’s an argument that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but equally, would a chef not want to mix things up more than once a decade?
Regardless it wasn’t memorable, nor indeed was the subsequent bread which hadn’t felt the warmth of an oven in hours and didn’t come with any balsamico, oil or butter. Along with most other tables, ours was picked at but then left uneaten and removed. Bread is an important, symbolic introduction to any restaurant, especially one with a Michelin star, so we were surprised more care or effort wasn’t taken on this front.
From the impressive and enticing menu the linguini with clams, chili and pancetta jumped out at me. It was a generous serving but lacking balance. Given the ingredients it was naturally salty, (not overpoweringly so) but little else came through and the advertised ‘hot chillies’ were noticeably absent. For 24 bucks, I expected a much more memorable pasta experience.
Chestnut crepes with radicchio and portobello, (neci con funghi misti) was the other appetizer. It looked beautiful on the plate and was certainly substantial, the mixed mushrooms imparting a rich depth of forest flavour despite being puréed.
For the primi, my wife chose the goat’s cheese tortellini – glistening with both oil and butter, it was slick in taste and appearance but light and subtly flavored despite the extensive EVOO. Exactly what one would expect from a Batali pasta – a simple, classic dish but memorably executed.
Unfortunately our other entree was the barbecued skirt steak with salsa verde and eggplant ‘alla piastra’ (cooked on a griddle). I was really excited to try this hallmark Batali dish but, regrettably, again it wasn’t the sum of its parts. Although there was none of the smokiness, char or sear one would expect from the barbecued description, what would rescue it would be a vibrant salsa verde, full of fresh herbs, capers, anchovies, olive oil and garlic. Right? Unfortunately what lay beneath was massively disappointing, a dark green gloop, slightly powdery, with absolutely no taste. None. It was as if the kitchen had run out of ingredients and puréed some spinach – with no seasoning. I can’t help thinking that if Mario Batali had been in that night and dipped his finger in it, the kitchen’s walls would still be shaking as we speak.
Partial redemption came in a fine duo of desserts, a pear, almond and cranberry ‘sottosopra’ cake and the wobbly delight of a saffron pannacotta with rhubarb.
Overall, however, the lasting impression of Babbo was one of some disappointment – that a big name restaurant had failed to impress and that a long-awaited booking, on the penultimate day of the year, went with more of a whimper than a bang.
Babbo, 110 Waverley Place, New York T:212.777.0303 http://www.babbonyc.com/