Our first trip to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Babbo was way, way back in 2010, before we had visited NYC’s Italian heavy-hitters like Torrisi Italian Specialties and Del Posto. At the time, I said that Babbo was doing Italian food better than anyone in its category in my usual superlative-laden way, and three years later, my boyfriend and I wanted to see how it’s holding up.
This is the four-course lunch tasting menu at $49 with an extra pasta course each for $20 and $35 for wine pairings:
Very appetizing thanks to the bright vinegar notes. Just a touch of sweetness, with chilies that were just spicy enough. Contrast between the tender eggplant slices and the crunch croutons. Relatively simple yet very complete.
Very green and spring-like. I loved the heartiness of the thick pasta and thought the cheese added a necessary depth but wished they hadn’t left off the salami that comes with the full-price version of this dish to give it even more of a bright/robust contrast.
So buttery with that hint of browned-butter sweetness. Little packets of tender, buttery lamb topped with sweet and sagey butter sauce. Did I mention butter?
Buttery pockets of tender beef that tasted as if it’d been slowly cooking for hours, with a fresh hit of parsley and the crunch of the truffle shavings.
Despite the sweet and sour preparation that made these cranberries even more flavorful than usual, it was the pork that really shone. This was JUST how a pork loin should taste, with that smoky edge and so much natural sweetness. The fennel gave the dish a little crunch and added to the sourness.
I’m an olive oil cake fiend, and this one was perfection. The crunchy exterior was soaked with butter, and the interior was asking to sop up the oil on the plate. The sorbet was pretty funk-laden, but Batali’s creme fraiche gelato is one of the best frozen things I’ve ever eaten, so I don’t shy away from funk. The candied lemon mimicked the candied texture of the cake and gave the whole dish a brightness.
This was served with Moscato d’Asti, Brandini 2010, which is the only wine pairing that matched what was printed on the menu. The other pairings were from the Bastianich wineries, and I kind of liked the idea of both of the owners being so well represented in the food and wine.
A dense, dark, moist flourless cake with the texture of a brownie. We were both convinced there were chocolate chips inside until we were picking nuts out of our teeth afterward. (Sorry.) The thick whipped cream on top had just the slightest hint of chocolate and was complemented by the sweet, barely-there fruitiness of the sticky vincotto.
With the way our lunch started, I was pretty skeptical that my feelings toward Babbo were going to remain consistent with my first review. We asked ourselves at one point if the place was actively trying to make sure we had a bad time. The service was polite but not anywhere close to polished, we had been seated at a table shoved up against a wall next to the door, and we saw all of the tables around us get the chickpea bruschetta amuse bouche we ate on our first visit but never got one ourselves.
But the food at Babbo more than made up for the otherwise so-so experience. From the very first course, we kept stopping mid-chew and saying, “Hey, this is really good.” It kept surprising us again and again, even after having been to the Torrisis and Del Postos of NYC. We wanted to be mad at the place for not having Michelin-quality service and decor like they do, but we couldn’t help ourselves. And I can’t wait to go back.
I called our first visit to Daniel back in 2011 “as close to perfect a meal as Kamran and I have had in NYC”. It was our first time at a restaurant with three Michelin stars and our first time eating one of these over-the-top, wine-paired, France-fueled tasting menus.
Since then, we’ve been to all but one of the three-Michelin-starred places (if anyone wants to put in a good word for Masa, I’m listening) and have basically had so much good food that we’ve started to question whether or not it’s been a mistake to ruin ourselves for mediocre food, so we decided it was time to go back to Daniel and see if our first time still holds up.
This is the six-course tasting for $195 (with an added cheese course for $50), paired with wine for $105:
Mostly salmony but with just a hint of that bitter rye flavor.
Creamy/crunchy/chewy textures, with chive oil at the bottom to add to and contrast with the flavor of the onion jam on top.
The most perfect, most singular bite of shrimp, with citrus flavor and the crunch of the confit parsnip chip below.
Pretty gamey-tasting with a ham-like texture that made this like enjoying a charcuterie plate, sour gelee, and a very fresh, almost vegetal-flavored pistachio oil swipe.
Sweet and creamy, with crisp brioche toast points. This was the gentler counterpart to the funky squab thanks to its sweet onions and crisp pears, which I love the texture of in any dish but especially in very homogenous ones.
This was one of my favourite dishes on both visits. Not only is crab just simply delicious, but Daniel knows just the fresh elements to pair with it to make it really sing, for lack of a better metaphor. Subtle and sweet with a vinegary celery sauce to make it bright. I don’t think anything was better for me all night than that first forkful of crab, celery leaves, and crisp apple.
These tender hunks of fish were served cold and had much stronger flavors than their crab counterpart thanks to a meaty mussel sauce and brunoise of bold chorizo. A combination of fresh and wilted leaves gave it differing textures.
My first frog! Except for the lollipop, which seemed more familiar due to its breading, I thought this had its own slightly aquatic flavor and didn’t just “taste like chicken”. The texture of the smaller bits reminded me a lot of sweetbreads with the way it was chewy and segmented. I loved the deep stew-like flavors of the this and the texture of the crispy kale.
Have I mentioned that Daniel really knows what they’re doing with shrimp? The sweet shellfish flavor was so strong in this despite the relatively bold flavors of fennel and olive. It was so buttery and familiar, less exciting than the frog legs but more comforting. I think I’m finally getting used to the taste of olives, too, because when I tasted them in this dish, it was more “that’s what an olive tastes like” than “eww, what is that weird gross flavor?” Grownup!
Our first time at Daniel, we were impressed by the way the kitchen made tuna taste like steak and sole taste like chicken, and this was another instance of their uncanny ability to bring the sea to land. It was just so much like eating a piece of steak, and the fava bean/chickpea cake was such the perfect starch to accompany it with its crispy exterior and dense middle. I loved the buttery Brussels sprout, the fresh garbanzos, and just the slightest heat from the sauce.
Not really a kale flan but more like a crumbly kale cookie, with fresh bitter kale leaves on top. Deliiiiicious little cylinder of creamy potatoes with a crunchy shell. Sticky, dark sauce. The only misstep for me was the lack of crispy skin on the fish; the other elements on the plate were simply much more interesting than the sea bass.
What’s more luxurious than a plate full of different kinds of baby cow? The tenderloin was tender, but the blanquette must have started cooking before that little veal was even born to have made it so buttery soft. The sweetbreads were very familiar inside, but the coating was this thick, flour-heavy batter I haven’t tasted before. Even the herbs themselves were salty and delicious; a lot of care was clearly put into this dish.
I loved that this dish and the veal were just pure hunks of meat, unadulterated but for some sauce. The sticky sweet tender shortrib was such the perfect juxtaposition to the hard-seared wagyu. The chestnuts provided just enough texture contrast to the purées but were still softened and sweet.
The frommelier (apparently this is a totally real word used to describe the fromage version of the wine sommelier) brought her cheese cart around to our table and named each selection. We knew we wanted the super-stinky Époisses de Bourgogne but otherwise left ourselves in her hands and received a plate with six different kinds ranging from firm to soft and sweet to stinky and goaty to sheepy to cowy. Slices of bread, apricots, cherries, and the sweetest red wine gelee accompanied them, and when we couldn’t begin to finish the plate, everything was wrapped up for us to take home.
I secretly think meringue is too simple and bland when anything else is available, but this dessert really worked for me. The layers of whipped cream and cold meringue were so creamy and sweet, and then the fruits on the side packed a sour punch. I loved the guava gel specifically as someone who’s into tart flavors enough to go around sucking on lemons.
served with Château Pajzos 5 Puttonyos Aszú, Tokaji 2003
This was the same chocolate cake I had back in 2011. The crunchy exterior gave way to a gooey molten center that oozed out onto the plate. Simple. But perfect.
served with Domaine de Rancy Rivesaltes Ambré, Roussillon 1996
Last time, we were celebrating my boyfriend finishing law school. This time, we weren’t celebrating anything special, but the kitchen still sent us this extra dessert. We saw a lot of extra desserts going around that night, many with little notes written in chocolate on the plates. It’s little touches like this that make Daniel feel special. The fact that I especially loved this because of the super-sour lime gel didn’t hurt, either.
The Michelin Guide calls Daniel “luxury in the traditional style”, and I really think that’s the best description. It’s purely elegant here, not in the modern and simple Per Se way but in the over-the-top and grand Bouley way. The dining room is completely windowless, creating this very protected and intimate feel, and the sunken center means that diners on the perimeter have a view of what everyone else is doing. I’m sure it doesn’t compare to dining in the skybox overlooking the kitchen, but I felt pretty regal at my spot along the wall on a plush banquette lit only by a candle and being served by friendly-yet-professional Frenchies. Pretty close to perfect indeed.
I know it’s not couth to admit this, but I don’t care much for Chinese food. I love the ponzus and wasabis of Japan. I love the chilis and kaffir leaves of Thailand. I love the, well, everything of India. I love Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iranian, and Korean. But when I think of Chinese food, I think of brown sauce. To me, it’s bland and sugary and does nothing to make plain chicken any more exciting. If I’m eating Chinese, I’m going to avoid the brown sauce by ordering sweet and sour chicken–because breading automatically makes things 100% more delicious–but I know that sweet and sour chicken is the last thing Chinese people want representing their cuisine.
So when my boyfriend kept trying to push Congee Village onto me, I was understandably resistant. And then we went, and it was wonderful, and I liked it so much I’m actually the one trying to convince him that we need a whole garlic chicken for dinner every night. Here’s a compilation of most of the dishes we’ve tried so far.
The decor at Congee Village is, while a little cheesy (see wall mural above), so much nicer than most cheap Chinatown joints. The lack of fluorescent lighting is a lot of it, but the fact that all of the furniture is wood and wicker makes it automatically seem nicer. The upstairs is bright and open, while the lower level is darker and cozier. A girl wouldn’t be horrified if you took her on a date here. Just don’t order her the fish head in broth unless you know she’s that kind of girl.
The service is neutral-to-borderline-hostile, but the food makes up for it.
This is easily my favourite dish here. XO is made of dried scallops, shrimp, and fish but mostly tastes like chilies and garlic. Since I had it first at Momofuku Ko a few years ago, I’m always excited to see it on a menu, and its natural deliciousness is only enhanced when its spread on something carby and comforting like these chewy fried rice rolls. The egg, chives, sprouts–it’s all complex and texture-ful.
Here’s a bad iPhone photo of it that gives you a better idea of what the rice rolls look like:
Otherwise known as soup dumplings or xiaolongbao. You bite the tops off of these, slurp the soup inside, and then eat the ball of pork inside. I’m sure any Chinese person would tell you that the skin of these is too thick and the soup isn’t plentiful enough, but at least you don’t have to deal with the long waits and gigantic communal tables of Chinatown soup dumpling favourite Joe’s Shanghai to get your fix. (And these are cheaper, too.)
a.k.a. char siu bao. Mostly a cloud of squishy carbs but with a tiiiiiny dollop of hoisin-flavored pork in the center. Not for the diabetic. I probably could’ve eaten twenty of these but mostly just to finally get enough filling. They’re only $1.80 for two, though, so it’s not like I was expecting a pig feast.
Think sausage patties but with big cubes of lotus root in every bite. The minced pork with salted fish is actually the more oft-recommended dish, but the recommendation usually comes with a caveat like “it’s an acquired taste” or “you would most likely hate it”. This was a pretty familiar taste, but the texture was an entirely new thing with the addition of the crunchy/starchy lotus root.
My boyfriend is half-convinced that he should live like a Buddhist monk and avoid anything with too much flavor, so this dish was totally his doing and his responsibility to eat. I appreciated the sheer number of different vegetables and fungi in it, but it mostly just tasted like soy sauce.
Brown sauce! This is a simple, belly-filling sticky rice with chicken, mushrooms, and vegetables. I wanted the salted chicken one, but our server told me it’s salty and recommended this one instead. I think he was worried about my blood pressure. Another time, we had the rice baked with two kinds of Chinese sausage, which I would more be likely to order again. Not only did it not have the dreaded brown sauce, but the sausages were very distinct and a little bit funky.
Apparently this is a luxury item served on special occasions in China, which explains why it was so expensive (and by that, I mean $15). We innocently ate this before learning that sharks’ rights groups are trying to get it banned because hunters will shear the fins off of sharks and throw them back into the water, where they’re unable to swim. In the U.S., though, shark fins can’t be imported without the rest of the shark attached, so . . . at least we force people to kill them completely? I guess we prooooobably wouldn’t order this again, knowing now what we do, but I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t an interesting bowl of soup. The flavor was mostly the crab, but the texture was gloopy and gelatinous and unique. I liked it, okay? I’m a bad person.
I have no memory of the type of porridge I ordered (knowing me, the salted chicken or roast duck and meatball one), but it doesn’t really matter. I know there’s a variation of this dish in, like, every Asian culture, so there has to be something to it, but for us it was so flavorless we found ourselves mixing every condiment on the table into it. I guess that’s why it’s for sick people and babies. I can see how it’d make a decent side dish for the more flavorful main dishes (RICE ROLLS WITH XO SAUCE), but I probably don’t need to eat a whole bowl by myself again.
I don’t even want to talk about this.
Crispy outside. Doughy inside. $1. With icing-like condensed milk for dipping on the side. This and a bubble tea (ask to see their separate drink menu for the bubble teas and fruit drinks) is simple perfection in starch form.
This is a terrible iPhone photo of a really great dish. The most important dish, really. A whole or half chicken, crispy skin saltily glazed, big slivers of fried garlic, and juicy, flavorful insides. There were big pieces and small pieces, white pieces and dark pieces. The more we ate, the more there seemed to be on the plate. Any time we go here and don’t order this, I feel like we wasted the visit.
My boyfriend and I have long had Bouley on our radar, but when we wanted to try a David Bouley restaurant, we went for his newer, Japanese kaiseki one, Brushstroke, and had a 4.5-donut experience. We’ve been trying to cover some new ground lately, though, and thought maybe it was time to pay respect to his eponymous restaurant that was so huge in the 80s and recently saw a facelift in the late 00s.
We booked dinner simply because we saw a reservation available on OpenTable, but as we looked into visiting, we wondered if we hadn’t made a very costly mistake. Dinner at Bouley is $175 for six courses, $280 with wine. Lunch is five courses for $55. So the darkness and that one extra course cost you $120. We thought about trying to switch to lunch. We thought about canceling our reservation completely after reading some of the unflattering reviews floating around the Internet. But we ultimately decided to go for the full dinner tasting menu and judge for ourselves, expectations appropriately set.
Bouley (pronounced “boo-LAY”, just in case you’re like me and assume every name has an American pronunciation) is opulent. It’s like a country home where everything has been coated in gold leaf. Heavy drapes, tall candles, fresh flowers everywhere. Wood, iron, vaulted ceilings. Bathrooms the size of most NYC apartments and laden with enough tapestry to dress every diner for life. Private dining rooms where every inch seems to be covered in red velvet. Even the picture frames are upholstered in purple velvet. And the foyer is lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of apples so that the room smells like an orchard.
Very beety, with plenty of blue cheese flavor and nutty sweetness.
Japanese flatbread, truffle, potato and cheese sauce. Yes.
On top of and inside this cold aspic (savory gelatin) was uni made extra sweet by broiling. The complex ocean flavor of this dish was balanced by the cream and caviar underneath.
If you knew me just a few years ago, the idea of my ordering an all-mushroom course would be hilarious to you. I remember being at Cafeteria in Chelsea one night on one of my first dates with my boyfriend and piling millimeter-long chips of mushroom from my risotto on one side of my bowl and hoping he wouldn’t notice. But ever since I had the wild mushroom salad with jalapeno puree at Momofuku Ko forced on me and found it one of the most unforgettable dishes of my life, I’ll give any mushroom a try.
These were sweet, a little spicy with something like cinnamon or nutmeg, and so umami with that Parmesan foam and black truffle. There were so many textures on the plate, including an entirely different one from the grilled tuna.
The bread man with his cage full of fresh loaves came to our table and offered us slices of anything we wanted. The flavors were varied and interesting: saffron, sourdough, black currant, French onion. I loved how different and personal the service was.
Our server described this as a chawanmushi, but all of the chawanmushis I’ve had have been thick, broth-less custards. This was more like a creamy crab soup with a broth flavored like yuzu and cardamom. They sure didn’t skimp on the crab, though.
Sweet, with perfectly-cooked langoustine and scallops. The sauce was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. Maybe it could have been more spicy and salty for my taste, but it really let the natural flavors of the scallops and langoustine shine through.
Flaky fish, smoky almond milk, and so much sweet ginger.
Tender, buttery lobster with a crunchy black truffle julienne. I enjoyed the texture contrast between the slice of turnip on top and the puree underneath.
We’ve had a lot of Kobe, a lot of Wagyu, and a lot of Kobe and Wagyu that were probably not actually Kobe and Wagyu, so we wanted to try this “true Kobe”. Just to be sure. We were both entirely underwhelmed. The point of eating a really good piece of beef for me is to cut through it and notice how tender it is, but with the way this was sliced so thin, any cut would have been tender. Although I liked the crunchy texture with the beef, the watery frisée completely diluted the taste of the Kobe. Having just had the much-better calotte de boeuf at Per Se last month, this was an unfortunate let-down, and one that came with a hefty price tag.
Delicious crispy skin aside, the star of this was the date “paper” spread on the bottom of the dish. When heated, it became like a sauce, and it formed such an interesting new flavor when eaten with the lima beans. I loved the black pepper chunks in the polenta and the buttery fingerling potatoes served on the side.
Light and fluffy on top, a little icy on the bottom, and milky throughout. When the server put this down, my boyfriend and I immediately went to work imagining how it was made, and when the woman next to us tried to ask her date the same thing, he said, “Let’s wait for our neighbors to figure it out.” Food nerds!
This very sweet and lychee-ful sorbet made the accompanying fruits VERY tart. This was a complex dish that I secretly wanted to simplify by just eating a big, ol’ scoop of that delicious sorbet.
Mmm, grain-flavored gelato. I wasn’t a huge fan of it on its own, but the creamy soup and strawberries (which were such a treat out of season) were so pleasant with it, and my boyfriend actually liked that it was like eating a field.
Not a souffle in the molten cake sort of way but more like a meringue. “Pineapple egg foam”, we called it. So many things were good about this, from the warm pineapple chunks throughout to the sugar granules on the bottom to the unexpected pistachio core. The “10 exotic flavor sorbet” was really just two flavors for us: pineapple and yuzu. But it was very intense and delicious.
This was the souffle I was expecting, with a liquid center and a little crunch to the exterior. I liked the semi-sweet mousse and the crumbled cookie crisp, but the coffee ice cream really made the dish.
Truthfully, the food at Bouley was only okay. It looks like it should have three Michelin stars, but it only has one, and the reviews about it wavering from delicious to just decent were spot-on. Date paper duck? Delicious. Kobe that should be pretty hard to not make amazing? Just decent. For the price, which is well above a lot of the better tasting menus in the city, I would either expect plenty of off-menu courses (think Eleven Madison Park, where you could almost make a meal of all of the amuses they bring you) or at the very least, much more complete courses; two langoustines and three bay scallops does not a complete dish make. This was the same complaint I had about the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, though, so perhaps the protein with very little else is just the mark of a really French-y restaurant.
And yet, we left Bouley talking about what a great time it was. Despite not loving all of the food, we loved the experience of eating here. The decor is completely different than in any other fine dining room we’ve seen in NYC–not modern and simple but full and almost flamboyant. When I asked the sommelier, who was excellent, if I could take photos of the bottles, he said, “You SHOULD!” The guy on the bread cart joked with us every time he wheeled by, while the more serious servers would slide the food down in front of us, rattle off the ingredients in their French accents, and turn on a dime to go back and stand in their corners. It didn’t feel stuffy here, just professional and special. Maybe I’m not dying to go back for the food, but the overall dinner was something I’ll talk about.
From the Vault:
This is a meal from April of 2011, with pictures taken on my old point and shoot camera and everything. I recently revisited Jean-Georges, however, and wanted to post my first meal there before I review my second one.
I went to acclaimed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s less-expensive restaurants The Mark and Nougatine. There were definite highlights to each–the beets, the souffle, the strawberry foie gras brulee–but overall, my socks were not knocked off.
Everyone told me, “You can’t judge Jean-Georges on those! Go to the real restaurant! It’s a different experience!” They all said, “The lunch at Jean-Georges is the best value in the city!” So I went to Jean-Georges. I had the lunch. I’m still not sure how this restaurant has three Michelin stars.
Still the best part about dining at any of the Jean-Georges restaurants, I think. I just love that they have to be stirred and that they’re so intensely flavored and that they make you realize how overly-sweet and underly-natural traditional bottled sodas are. My boyfriend wasn’t as impressed with his spring herb soda as with the other flavors we’ve had, mostly because there weren’t any actual herbs in it, but my ginger is still one of the best drinks in town.
I think this dish sums up the Jean-Georges experience. The shrimp was impeccably seasoned and cooked, and the cucumber “pasta” was a neat little trick that resulted in this bright, fresh, light plate of food. If I was someone concerned about lightness and brightness, I might describe this dish as “guilt-free” and talk about how it’s a “healthy swap” for a legitimate pasta. But I want all of my dishes to involve so much butter I could sculpt a cow out of them. I want to feel like I should feel guilty about what I’m eating (but then not actually feel guilty, because I’m a grownup). I want to be knocked out by flavor. This kind of food is nice, but it’s not gut-bustingly, tear-producingly delicious.
One of the best things about the Jean-Georges experience is the marshmallow cart, which arrives bearing a jar of homemade marshmallows that the marshmallow-caterer deftly snips apart with her shears. You get one. You will want ten.
Lunch at Jean-Georges is quite a deal at two plates for $38 with each additional plate at $19. If you want to say you’ve been to a restaurant with three Michelin stars but don’t want to drop $118 on the prix-fixe menu or $198 on the tasting menu, this is the meal for you. Despite the price, it has all the trappings of the three-star experience: the refined plating, the sleek decor with neutral colors and tons of natural light, the flawless service. For me, though, the food doesn’t measure up to that of the other restaurants with three Michelin stars. It’s like there’s one flavor missing from every dish, one thing that other chefs are including that Chef Vongerichten isn’t. (Butter.)
And yet my boyfriend and I feel ourselves being drawn to it every now and then. After this meal, we returned for the full tasting at dinner. And even when that wasn’t quite good enough, either, we still mention going back again every time we see an open reservation. We’re still trying to find that third Michelin star. We’re still trying to give credit to the chef who’s said to have influenced the way New Yorkers eat more than any other. We still love those homemade sodas.
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)