Thursday, July 16, 2009

‘Tis A Gift To Be Simple: Barbuto

The celebrity chef is something that’s always been a part of New York’s fabric. For better or worse, we’re continually bombarded by the latest whim of television super-chefs like Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, or Masaharu Morimoto. While the Food Network has taken a few showy chefs and made them into mouthwatering moguls, Bravo’s Top Chef Masters is giving some of the hardest working and most talented chefs of today their own 15 minutes of fame… and you can bet none of these chefs will show up at your door for a Throwdown or a challenge in Kitchen Stadium.

Chef Anita Lo’s triumphant win last week had me yearning for a meal at her Annisa; however, Annisa being under renovation after a recent fire, left me totally blue tongued. Luckily, in an effort to beat the curve, I just dined at another upcoming Master’s restaurant before his episode has even aired. I wish I could attribute this to exceptional planning and unwavering dedication to my craft; however, the truth is I just happen to be fortunate enough to join some good friends at one of their favorite haunts, which happens to be Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto.

Approximately 45 minutes late (oops), I called Barbuto as I ran back and forth between West 12th Street and Little West 12th Street, which apparently are not the same thing. Between pants, I tried to describe my friends to the hostess and begged her to send them a round of cocktails on my credit card. To my delight, she was already aware of the situation, new exactly who and what I was talking about, and told me not to worry; she would talk to them and see me in a few minutes. Before I reached the host stand, the hostess knew who I was and whisked me off to the table…I could tell I was in for a treat.

When I reached the table, it was clear from my haggard appearance, that I needed a drink with the utmost expediency. I ordered a dirty martini. The bar has a somewhat odd mix of brands, not carrying my usual Kettle One or Johnnie Walker (my standard choice in Scotch whiskey). I opted for Rain Vodka, which actually may take Kettle’s place as my favorite, smooth and pristine, like…well…rain.

As I quickly skimmed the menu, I began reaching across the table to taste what had already arrived. The calamari fritti came dressed with avocado and chili oil. The oil gave the calamari just enough kick, without overpowering the squid. The calamari was shockingly tender (having suffered years of rubber bands at the hands of culinary criminals like the Olive Garden) and the creamy avocado served as a really pleasing textural foil to the crispy coating on the calamari.

In an effort to get my order in before the other arrived, I made the simple choice and ordered the dish for which Waxman is known, the pollo al forno, a roasted chicken with salsa verde. The truth is that while this decision was rushed, I would have made the same choice if I had hours to ponder the menu. First, I always believe in trying a chef’s specialty on a first visit to see if the hype holds water. Second, as a food critic, roasted chicken can be seen as the great equalizer. It’s something simple, but difficult to perfect, and it’s on almost every menu, making roast chicken a perfect platform from which to compare and contrast.

When our meals came (all at the same time I might add), an entire half chicken landed in front of me, glistening and crackling with an almost celestial aura. While the skin looked more beautiful than Chace Crawford sunbathing, if there was nothing of substance beneath, it was all for not. I dug in to find moist succulent meat that was an ideal companion to the crunchy skin. The “salsa verde” that enrobed the chicken was just fresh herbs and melted butter; on this night it was tarragon. The tarragon leaves seemed to fry a bit in the butter, leaving crunchy little morsels with almost every bite of chicken. I only made it through half of the plate and I can tell you that with a little skillful baking and broiling, you can almost revive the leftovers to restaurant quality the next day… or later that same night.

Barbuto serves most entrees sans side dish, leaving customers to pair sides at will…risky. I chose the barbabietola, braised beets with pickled onions and ricotta salata. While beets are always a visual pleasure, with their astounding purpley red (thankfully I describe food, not art), I was nervous that braised beets and roast chicken might prove to be a ho-hum meal. I already knew that there was nothing boring about my chicken, but I eyed the beets with skepticism. I was again pleasantly surprised; the ricotta snow that dusted the beets and onions was packed with flavor. The salty cheese brought the earthy beets together with the tangy pickled onions for one harmonious savory bite. These were also excellent as a midnight snack.

For dessert I chose a hazelnut semifreddo. Literally, semifreddo means “half cold” or semi-frozen, in this reincarnation it came in the form of an ice cream sandwich. Two chocolate cookies that seemed like 1/8-inch thick brownies flanked hazelnut ice cream. It’s hard to go wrong with the classic chocolate hazelnut pairing and this dish didn’t disappoint. The thin brownie layers still had some chew and the ice cream was soft enough to bite through, while still holding its form. Although I opted for the more elaborate dessert, I must admit that my friend’s affogato stole the show. One of my favorite desserts, this simple finale is a cup of exquisite vanilla gelato with a shot of espresso poured on top. Think of coffee ice cream without the chemicals and preservatives.

By the end of the meal, it was clear that Waxman’s acclaim comes from his skill with the simple and the classic. When I dine on truffles, oysters, or fois gras, I know that I’m in for a treat, but making a roasted chicken into a delicacy of its own takes a true Master.

Barbuto – 3 Sparkles ***
775 Washington Street
New York, NY 10014 @ West 12th Street
(212) 924-9700

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