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ME LIKE EAT Contributor: The Heart Of Babbo

June 29, 2011

Once again ME LIKE EAT is proud to present the thoughts of contributor Hugh, this time taking a journey up the lonely, savage, brutal canal of Manhattan dining… a journey that would lead him, ultimately, to the heart of Babbo.

Saigon. Sh*t.

Our decision to go to Babbo was made after about ten or fifteen minutes of serious talks on a random Friday night in the late Spring. This decision was not made lightly nor easily.

In thinking about the discussion which preceded our choosing Babbo, I recall we considered a number of options. Usual, neighborhood standbys and places outside of our comfort zone. Pricey, fancy places along with reliable, go-to joints. But after Babbo was first mentioned, it slowly began to permeate the discussion. At first, Babbo sat there quietly. And as other options were considered and discussed, Babbo waited as if it knew it would soon be mentioned again. And it was.

This time, we talked about how good the food at Babbo always was.

Then, as these discussions do, the conversation careened around a bit more. Babbo waited patiently.

But Babbo was mentioned again and this time, we discussed how we would get there.

Perhaps by this point we had narrowed our choice to Babbo, and another restaurant or two. And as our decision narrowed on Babbo, we talked about the money, and Babbo is expensive.

Well, expensive-ish.

Babbo is more pricey than, say, Carmine’s on Broadway, but it is not as expensive as a Jean-Georges.

However, by this point in our discussion, Babbo no longer sat quietly and waited. It had stood up and introduced itself. And the more we discussed it, the more I felt Babbo becoming impatient, and perhaps slightly offended by the fact that we had not yet finally decided to choose it.

But, Babbo faced a big, final stumbling block. The issue was whether we stood any chance of getting a table at Babbo, at the last minute on that random Friday night in late spring?

Our analysis of how to deal with this challenge was a mash-up of deductive reasoning and experience-based analogies. But broadly, we felt that because it was a Friday night after Memorial Day many of the people who would dine at a place like Babbo would probably be out having a big time in the Hamptons. We also thought that because our planning discussion was happening at 5:30 in the evening, and we were ready to move quickly, we might have a shot.

Like many great restaurants, there is a bar area at Babbo. And while reservations are generally impossible an unwashed type like me to get at the last minute, or even at all, on less than thirty days prior notice, there is a small bar area where a walk-in visitor might be accommodated.

The smaller the group, the better the odds.

For the restaurant commando, under the right circumstances, going for that seat at the bar at Babbo was a worthwhile objective. If it was a Friday night in the fall or winter, the story might have been different. But on that night in the late spring, Babbo to us meant better than even odds.

We made the decision. Go.

If I say it is safe to surf this beach, Captain, it is safe to surf this beach!

Ok, for those who do not know, Babbo is a great New York City restaurant, operated by the highly talented chef, charming media personality, author and successful entrepreneur Mario Batali. I have not eaten at all of Batali’s restaurants. But Babbo is my favorite of those I have visited. It serves hearty, basic Italian food.

Well, basic-ish.

You can order papardelle Bolognese or a pork chop. But if you are feeling ambitious you can also order a black spaghetti with rock shrimp, flavored by salami calabrese (Batali actually uses meat flakes as a pasta seasoning) or ravioli filled with a blood orange colored ground beet filling (Batali’s buttery Cansunzei is good for a near-narcotic effect).

The thinking and planning done, on execution I was struck by the possibility that our analysis of our chances of getting a seat had turned to be totally wrong.

To start with, we arrived late.

Well, late-ish.

We entered the restaurant at 6:30 at night. Early prime time. And the bar area was crowded. Too crowded.

I made my way through the crowd, to the maitre d’s station. He told me that seats were possible in the bar area. In an hour. Or an hour and a half.

The maitre d’ had dared us to stay.

There are moments in life when time freezes. At those moments, you have half an instant to analyze the facts, and another half to make a decision.

So for just a moment, in that crowded bar, the maitre d’s taunt hung in the air.

Why not?

I took the bet, and asked the maitre d’ to put my name on his list. Then off to the bar, order a drink, stand, and wait.

Do you know who's in charge here? Yeah.

It turned out it took only a half a drink before prime seats opened up. Maybe the maitre d’ told everyone ‘an hour to an hour and a half’ to separate the dedicated from the dilettantes. But shortly after we arrived, we were seated and settling in for a prix-fixe pasta tasting menu, with wine pairings ($69 per person plus $50 for the wine).

For those of us who live on the ragged edge and hoped that we might get a seat in at that bar area, we were bluff and bluster. Yes, we knew good food. We just did not have the juice, poise or patience to get through the maitre d’ or wait the obligatory thirty day standoff period.

Even though I might have been lucky that night, and was seated quickly, the decision to take that chance and try to get that seat was made after a discussion and analysis. So I didn’t feel the least bit bad as I ate my tagliatelle in a sauce which tasted of green peas picked a few hours earlier, observing this guy in what was probably an expensive too-tight designer shirt hovering by the bar, ordering a glass of wine for his total knock-out girlfriend and a Captain and Seven for himself. As they stood. And waited.

Ha!

Captain and Seven at Babbo? Ok, in fairness to this guy, you could tell by the way his beautiful, dark haired, blue eyed, dressed-to-the-nines date eyeballed him that he would definitely need that drink. Every man reading this has at least once been to that place where the eyes of Ms. Dressed-to-the-Nines sent Mr. Captain N. Seven.

Yet somehow – having absorbed this mini drama – at that moment, my food tasted better.

Is that so wrong?

But then something unexpected happened.

Over my shoulder appeared this young, compact, pretty, short-haired, blonde woman. She wore dark, neat, nice but understated clothes. She sipped a glass of wine with a sweet smile on her face. She had a pleasant, somewhat Canadian air about her. She seemed to be happy.

Well, happy-ish.

This pretty woman’s companion for the evening, stood next to her: another woman similarly small with similar blondish hair and hairdo. Clothing choices were nearly identical – a pair of rimless eyeglasses excepted. She also possessed a similar eau’ d’ pleasant. She was a generation older though. And by her shape, dimensions and bearing, you knew that this lovely mother and daughter couple came to the arena to dine out.

Without a reservation.

Mr. Captain N. Seven can stand and wait. And as he does so, I will joyfully relax and savor my chocolate al diavolo – a sort of chocolate mousse seasoned with hot red pepper flakes – paired with a matching dessert wine. I will smile and maybe even have a laugh as I contemplate whether a tier one single malt scotch after dinner with maybe two ice cubes is a good idea or not.

That’s the deal.

I know the deal. And Mr. Captain N. Seven knows the deal too. You roll the dice. And maybe you get lucky. Or maybe you have to stand there and wait while Ms. Sex In The City Version 2.0 flings straight razors at you from her eyes.

But how should you feel when you see this truly lovely looking mother and daughter pair just standing there, sipping wine? They smile sweetly and chat nonchalantly. And they wait.

Sure Babbo is democratic. And the rules are the rules. We all got to obey the rules. Don’t we? And hey, this is America, where no one’s above the law. Right?

Well, it’s not America. It’s Babbo. And there are is a lucky group who enjoy status Babbo. People who can actually get that reservation and not wait a month before they get to enjoy that great Babbo dinner.

But this lovely mother and daughter pair – like me – did not have status. They stepped into the Babbo and by so doing, they took their chances. They knew what they were getting into.

Didn’t they?

Then something strange happened. I found myself experiencing an emotion at the bar at Babbo, which I did not expect to feel.

Guilt.

Ok, I got there forty minutes before they did and knew enough to do that. But, still, I got to sit and eat and drink and enjoy fairly quickly.

And they got to stand and wait. Not for too long I think.

Well, long-ish.

The horror... the horror. (photo credit: Hugh)

For more of Hugh’s culinary adventures in New York City, check out his thoughts on Dining with Mark at Yankee Stadium, Nougatine and the State of Nature, and the Battle for New York City’s Soul: Pizza vs. Hot Dogs.

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