Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Grazing in New York

Too much never enough in the big city

By Kay West

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  As much as I would like to visit more often, it's probably a good thing I only get to New York once a year. Otherwise I might well fulfill people's expectations of a food critic with enormous body mass.

Unless you are helplessly smitten by meat 'n' three's and fast food--both of which hold little temptation to me--self-discipline isn't that difficult in Nashville. But in New York, faced with a world of choices, I behave like a child with a fist full of cash in a candy store. Greedy, greedy, greedy, with eyes and cravings bigger than my stomach.

It happens every time; at some climactic moment in my Epicurean orgy, I finally, reluctantly decide that I can't possibly put one more bite of food in my mouth.

This year, it happened on Day Four. My friend Gay, my children, and I were sitting at a table in Excellent Dumpling House on Lafayette Street in Chinatown, with the piddling remains of noodle soup, seafood in garlic sauce, stir-fried greens and, the house specialty, dumplings. I lay down my chopsticks, took a deep breath and sighed, "I can't possibly eat one more bite." Then I picked up the last dumpling and popped it in my mouth.

As if that weren't bad enough, on the way back to the apartment on the lower East Side, we stopped at Yonah Schimmel's Knishes at 137 E. Houston, ostensibly to purchase a few of their logoed pot holders (the perfect gift for the folks back home) but I couldn't resist a knish as well. Thank goodness our next stop was the airport, where we boarded--several pounds heavier than when we arrived--the plane home.

Among the things I ate on this trip was a lemony, crunchy heap of fried calamari at Two Boots Pizza, a charming little restaurant that warms the hearts of all New York parents with its sign, "We Welcome Children," not to mention its gourmet, thin-crust pizza. After standing chic-to-chic in Moomba, New York's hottest new restaurant/bar, 45 minutes past our reservation time with no table in sight, our party of five opted to catch the rest of the Mets-Braves game on the tube at Martin's Bar & Grill/Carribean Bistro, a Jamaican restaurant at 225 Varick Street in the Village. There, I had fried plantains, black beans and rice, and a delectable goat curry, all washed down with cold Red Stripe.

Friday afternoon was lunch at Folonico in the Flat Iron district with former business colleagues, where I had an endive salad with gorgonzola cheese and walnut vinaigrette, and a large, freshly made, sage-flavored pasta square laid over a stout wild mushroom ragu.

Saturday's lunch was a hot pretzel and Sabrett hot dog outside the Museum of Natural History where we saw the refurbished dinosaur hall and the enchanting live butterfly exhibit. Saturday afternoon, after an exhaustive tour of Central Park, FAO Schwartz, and the newly sanitized Times Square, the moms needed a little pick-me-up. We got the kids strawberry smoothies on the street, then carried them to the second floor of Le Frite Kot on West Fourth Street, one of the many french fry shops that have popped up in Manhattan following the remarkable success of Pommes Frite on Second Avenue. This one serves, in addition to white paper cones of crispy golden fries, buckets of steamed mussels and bottles of icy cold Stella Artois, a Belgian beer.

Thanks to an incorrect address, we were stymied in our attempt to check out the just-opened F3, a big duplex store selling nothing but fat-free and sugar-free foods. F3 stands for Fat-Free Foods, and if that is your inclination, you can find it at 770 Second Avenue (at 41st Street). I am generally opposed to fat-free foods, so I was much more inclined to Peanut Butter & Co., which we did find, at 240 Sullivan Street. As you might guess, the little restaurant specializes in peanut butter, which it makes on the premises. Still full of fries, mussels, and beer, it wasn't too hard to pass up the Peanut Butter BLT, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup (peanut butter sandwich with Nutella), and the Elvis--grilled peanut butter sandwich with honey and sliced bananas. They were out of peanut butter cookies so we walked around the corner to Cookies & Cous Cous, and got some big chocolate chip cookies for the kids, a scoop each of freshly made plum and peach sorbet for the moms.

But enough grazing. Serious culinarians will want to hear more about Babbo, a fairly new restaurant in a landmark location owned by two very big names in the food world. (Both would be much better known here in Nashville if our cable provider would carry The Food Channel...hello???) Less than four hours after landing at La Guardia, I was happily sitting at a table in this warm and intimate trattoria, being doted upon by the suave sommelier, Marcos Mercado Lugo. We relied heavily on his expertise, as the wine list is exclusively Italian and mostly unfamiliar to me. We started with a glass--technically a quartino (250 milliliters, or a third of a bottle)--of Fantasico, then shared a bottle of Verc del Castela Pino Nero 1995.

Babbo opened about 18 months ago in the former location of one of New York's most beloved old restaurants, The Coach House. Se-or Lugo told us that the Coach House owners kept the site empty for six years, waiting on just the right new owners. When Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich took over the lease, they found that neither the electricity nor the phone had ever been disconnected in all those years.

Coach House customers would find nothing--with perhaps the exception of the friendly, careful service--familiar about Babbo. Where The Coach House offered traditional, classic American fare, Babbo's menu is decidedly Italian. Of course, Amerigo's calls itself Italian, but where Amerigo's is Service Merchandise, Babbo is Tiffany.

Batali owns another successful New York restaurant named Po, has a popular program on The Food Network, is the author of several cookbooks, and has just been named one of GQ's Men of the Year for his brash, inventive cooking style; Bastianich is the son of the revered Italian restaurateur and author Lidia Bastianich and, with his mother, also owns Felidia, Becco, and Frico. Though I religiously read The New York Times' Wednesday restaurant reviews, I save very few; one exception is the August 1998 copy of Ruth Reichl's review of Babbo, which she awarded a rare three stars, high praise indeed from the picky critic.

With just two of us dining, we were limited in our selections. We lucked out with the warm lamb's tongue appetizer served with sautéed wild mushrooms and topped with a poached egg, but had to forgo the marinated fresh anchovies with lobster oil, the organic lettuces with black olive and blood orange citronette, and the crostini Toscane with red kale and fennel pickles.

I chose the pasta based on its romantic name--mint love letters with spicy lamb sausage, and an entree based on its sexy name--spicy two-minute calamari Sicilian lifeguard style--so robust and fresh it tasted, as Reichl noted, as if we were eating on a beach in Sicily. As blissfully happy as I was with both, I was still craving just a taste of the beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver and black truffles; the gnocchi with braised oxtail; the goat cheese tortellini with dried orange and wild fennel pollen; the wild striped bass with tomato anchovy vinaigrette; the grilled quail with wilted chard, chanterelles, and saba; the grilled lamb chops with zucchini, shiitake, and lemon-basil pesto; the...well you get the picture. When it comes to eating in New York, too much is never, ever enough.

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