Despite working in the entertainment industry, I still have a tendency to get a bit starstruck. Back when I worked at a talent agency, if I encountered a famous actor or musician, I would attempt to “play it cool.” In my case that meant avoiding all eye contact, and keeping the conversation to a polite minimum to avoid swallowing my tongue. One of my more embarrassing moments was loudly complaining to the receptionist that I had just missed seeing David Alan Grier, only to look over at the nearby waiting area and see the man waving pityingly in my direction. Cue my natural-born talent to blush intensely, and a hurried exit back to my desk.
Nowadays I work in production, so my exposure to celebrity is much more limited. I’d like to think that I’ve matured into a more capable human being in the face of the famous, but a chance encounter last weekend revealed that I’m not as chill as I’d hoped I’d become. I was out for a birthday dinner with my family, and as the gal of honor I chose the restaurant — Barbuto, down in the West Village. Why pick a seemingly random restaurant that’s been around for 10 years? Enter foodie origin story! Obviously I’ve always loved eating (and dessert), but my fascination with cooking and chefs didn’t really start until I got into Top Chef. Specifically, Top Chef Masters, season two, way back in 2010. Watching the chefs conceptualize and execute these amazing dishes made me curious to try expanding my own palate a bit. Of all the contestants, the chef that produced the most rapturous salivation per episode for me was Jonathan Waxman. I remember watching the season and marveling that I wanted to eat literally every dish he made. So when I discovered he had a restaurant in NY earlier this year, I locked in my birthday dinner immediately.
Little did I know that, 10 years into the run of his restaurant, Mr. Waxman is still intimately involved in the day to day life of Barbuto. About half an hour into our meal I turned to see the chef casually strolling amongst the tables, dressed in a polo shirt and chef’s pants. Our fantastic waiter, Matt, told us that Waxman (or “Papa,” as the staff calls him) comes into the restaurant nearly every day, and approves the menu via email if he can’t. On his second turn around the tables, while checking in with various diners, he paused by our table. I was overwhelmed by the moment, stuttering out a hello before my mother announced it was my birthday. Feeling I couldn’t let the moment pass, I asked for a photo. Sure thing, replied Mr. Waxman. And with shaky legs I stood up as the inspiration for my food fascination casually placed his arm around my shoulders. The resulting photo, featuring my stunned, ecstatic expression can be viewed at the end of the post.
That event in itself would have made the night, but, in an abundance of riches, our dinner at Barbuto turned out truly tremendous. So now that I’ve gushed enough about the chef, let’s get down to the dishes!
Barbuto is an upscale, casual restaurant, a fact that is immediately apparent from the architecture of the space. It’s literally a converted garage, the front walls of the restaurant in actuality garage doors that are rolled up into the ceiling in the summer, leaving the restaurant open to the cool evening air. There is sidewalk seating, but our table was still technically indoors, right by the front of the dining area with a clear view of Washington Street and access to the open air. The back of the restaurant features an open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and one of the two spaces for private parties is located right by the kitchen (a smaller room behind the bar is also available). The overall attitude of the restaurant is laidback and unpretentious, the industrial elements of the original garage mingling with smaller, homey touches — from white tiling on the walls and bar to simple wooden tables and wicker chairs.
Our server, Matt, was extremely friendly and happy to answer any and all questions we had about the menu. He explained that each menu is dated in the corner because it is constantly changing — in fact, one of his favorite dishes appeared for just one week before fading into the mists of time. As the remaining members of our party arrived, Matt suggested that we might get the most out of Barbuto’s Family Menu. Basically a chef’s tasting menu, the Family dinner covers the four courses listed on the menu, plus individual desserts for each guest. The chef selects from the list of antipasti, primi, piatta unici, and contorni, and they are more than happy to accommodate any allergies and special diets. In our case that meant no pork, no unpastuerized cheese, and options for a vegetarian (I know, we’re high maintenance). Matt was obliged with nary a blink of his eyes, and off we went on our Italian adventure.
For the sake of not overwhelming you all with the massive quantity of dishes, I’ve picked out some of my favorites for the night. I didn’t take as many notes as I did for Blue Duck Tavern, partially because I was still flustered from meeting Jonathan Waxman, and partially because I was determined to be in the moment for my birthday dinner. So here’s a not-so-quick rundown of some of Barbuto’s best bites:
The Family Dinner generally comes with salumi, but we opted out because of the heavy pork contents. Instead we were presented with the Ravanelli (local radishes, roasted garlic butter & toast), the Insalata Spinge Pietra (sea beans, fregola & podda classico), the Insalata Crudi ( asparagus, carrots, watermelon radish, pecorino & bread crumbs), and the Insalata Stagionale (radicchio, baby romaine, capers, fava beans & anchovy). All four of these dishes were fresh and delicious, but I’m going to focus on my two favorites — the Insalata Crudi and the Insalata Spinge Pietra. I will say, however, that my brother Sam mopped up as much of the garlic butter as he could, and my father was all over the anchovy salad. So clearly there were a mix of opinions for favorites.
Of course I forgot to photograph one of my favorite dishes of the night — the Insalata Crudi. The dish is composed of ribbons of asparagus and carrots, with small slices of watermelon radish mixed in and crisp pecorino and breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. The salad features tri-color carrots, so I had my first purple carrot experience outside of Israel. Overall, it was a light salad, even with the cheese coating the vegetables. The saltiness of the breadcrumb/pecorino topping meshed well with the fresh moisture of the vegetables. As a big fan of carrots, asparagus, and cheese, I found myself taking seconds and thirds of this salad. With clear but not domineering flavors and a brightness from the produce, this is a great way to start a meal.
I found the Insalata Spinge Pietra intriguing because it used a number of ingredients I had never seen before. The only thing I immediately recognized on the plate was the arugula. Matt explained that sea beans are a type of succulent, or plants that tend to retain water in arid conditions (like cacti). Up close they resemble the lovechild of green beans and broccoli rabe, with long stalks and smaller branches coming off the sides. The sea beans have a natural saltiness reminiscent of the ocean, but in the way good shellfish tastes briny, not in a mouth full of sand way. The other two items, the fregola and the podda classico, turned out to be Sardinian varieties of familiar ingredients. Fregola is a semolina pasta similar to Israeli couscous, and podda classico is a sheeps and cows milk cheese with a nutty, tangy taste. It was an assault of flavors from salty to bitter to sweet and tangy, and I really enjoyed discovering these regional ingredients.
We were served two dishes for our pasta course — the Risotto alla Primavera, and the Gnocchi con Carote. While the risotto was well executed, I felt like it was somewhat one note. Generally the asparagus, peas and basil are complemented with speck, an Italian sausage, but it was left out of our dish. While I’m generally not particularly interested in cured meats, here I think the potential salt and bite of the speck would have lifted the dish.
One of the dishes that kept cropping up on reviews of Barbuto was Waxman’s take on gnocchi, and when it arrived, I understood the reason why. Gnocchi is my favorite form of pasta, and when I see it on a menu, I feel compelled to order it, so I was delighted that it came with our dinner. The Gnocchi con Carote is served with with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and Parmesan. Each tiny pouch of potato had a slight crust, cooked in what tasted like brown butter, which added a delicate nuttiness. Those same tricolor carrots were chopped and cooked down to a creamy softness, while the sliced snap peas were still crunchy, keeping the dish from falling into a monotony of texture. The overall taste of caramelization was decadent, but for a gnocchi enthusiast like me, I would gladly have eaten the entire family style plate.
Piatta Unici (Entrees)
If it seems like my family had already been served several mountains of food in our first two courses, prepare yourself for the main attraction. Our entree course came with the Pollo al Forno, the Manzo ai Ferri, the Platessa alla Plancha, and a vegetarian fregola and chickpea dish. I’m going to focus on the chicken and the flounder, but I will say the Manzo ai Ferri (prime skirt steak, chickpeas, and roasted shishito peppers) was supremely cooked. It was the kind of melt-in-your-mouth steak that is so rarely achieved in steakhouses, thinly sliced, perfectly medium rare and absolutely luscious. And although I wasn’t about to chow down on some peppers, spice-wimp that I am, when eaten with a piece of the steak, the kick took it up a notch.
The Pollo al Forno is guaranteed to be a part of each Family dinner at Barbuto, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call it the restaurant’s signature dish. In fact, it’s described on the menu as “JW Chicken & salsa verde,” the only item specifically touting the Waxman’s initials. Luckily, like the highly regarded gnocchi, this dish also lived up to my lofty expectations. The chicken was roasted and seasoned with tarragon and oregano, creating a crispy skin and plump, tender meat underneath. Despite the salsa verde (a green sauce of herbs, anchovies, capers, vinegar and oil) served on top, I felt the tarragon had the strongest presence. It was the kind of roast chicken that reminded me that chicken is not just a safe bet. Here was a relatively straightforward dish, without any fancy new techniques or exotic ingredients, and it was just superbly done, putting that buttermilk poached chicken at Blue Duck Tavern to shame. Interestingly, I managed to snag a small piece as leftovers, and the chicken actually reheated wonderfully. I think I actually enjoyed the dish more a few days later because I got to focus on the flavors of the chicken alone, rather than amongst the inundation of delicious entrees that I had when dining at Barbuto.
Somewhat surprisingly, my favorite entree of the meal was the Platessa alla Plancha (flounder, garlic scapes, and capers). I probably would never have ordered it for myself, so hats off to the Family Menu for the come from behind winner. While the fish itself was nicely cooked and flaked off easily, what made the dish for me were all the accompaniments. The garlic scapes (which, for the uninitiated like me, are the curling tops of garlic plants) had a sharp, strong garlic bite to them, which heightened the sweet apple-ish sauce underneath the fish. I found the combination utterly addictive, and though the rest of my family thought the sauce was a little cloying, I repeatedly had helpings of the flounder over the steak. Much like the seabean salad, I found myself excited by the discovery the scapes, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find them on other menus, or even cook with them myself. Oh, and in case you wanted to be hip to the lingo, apparently in the farmer’s market world, scapes are the new ramps (oh the ups and downs of the trendy vegetable scene).
A quick word about the sides for our main course. We had the Verdure (market greens with chili flakes and garlic) and the Patate (potatoes, pecorino & rosemary). The Verdure was made up of kale, escarole, and chard, and like many of the dishes at Barbuto, had a fair amount of black pepper and chili seasoning. It reminded me of the spicy kale I ate at Cafeteria, and while it certainly mitigated the bitterness of the greens, I can’t say I’m really into this fad of lacing salads with peppery heat. I think I prefer my sides to complement my meal, and the addition of heat makes the vegetables stand out too much for me.
The Patate, on the other hand, was right up my alley. It was as if the chef interbred roasted potatoes and french fries, making a starchy mutt that my family wolfed down. The potatoes were cut into thick chunks, leaving a soft but starchy interior surrounded by a cheesy, rosemary-infused, deep fried crust.
Last, but not least, we’ve got dessert. With all the variety of dishes, it was a little surprising that every person in our party was served the same dessert. Luckily, it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because that dessert was fantastic. Waxman has worked with the same pastry chef for the past 16 years, at both his restaurants and his cookbooks, and it’s pretty easy to see why. My plate arrived with a scoop of chocolate pudding and a small square of tiramisu (with a birthday candle in it, of course). Our waiter explained that the chocolate pudding is always on the dessert menu, but the tiramisu is a dessert exclusive to the Family Dinner. After the family size portions of the rest of our meal, I actually appreciated the relatively modest dessert plate. It was the perfect amount of sweetness to finish the meal, but keep me from feeling too overstuffed.
Tiramisu tends not to be one of my favorite desserts, but this was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had. Instead of the typical lady fingers, there was a delicate sponge cake separating the layers of airy mascarpone and whipped cream. The wine and espresso flavors were very subtle, highlighting the cocoa more than standing out on their own.
But man, the chocolate pudding was just unreal. Sweet milk chocolate with a prominent cocoa taste, it was thick and creamy, nearly to the point of being a mousse. I could have eaten an entire bowl of this — it simultaneously evoked the nostalgia of Bill Cosby Jello pudding packs while showing you how much of a difference quality natural ingredients can have with even the simplest dessert. It was the perfect representation of Barbuto’s menu and overall vibe — fresh food that is familiar but also gives you pause. You wonder why all gnocchi isn’t cooked in brown butter, why more restaurants don’t serve seabeans, and why this chocolate pudding isn’t being sold in large vats at Stop ‘n Shop.
From start to finish, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better birthday dinner. I got to make of a fool of myself fawning over a celebrity chef (who fortunately was incredibly down to earth and forgiving), I got to try new ingredients and new flavor combinations, and I ended the night with a mouth full of chocolate. I know I’ve said this several times before, but what truly made this a memorable meal was the service at Barbuto. From our eager-to-assist waiter Matt, to the busboys who truly knew the components of each dish they were serving us, to of course Papa Waxman himself, we were treated with respect and endless amounts of accommodation. Barbuto is worth visiting for the food, but perhaps even more so for the friendly, easygoing, but thoughtful vibe — yes, they care about the food they serve, but they’re also thinking about who’s on the other end of the fork.
775 Washington St (Corner of W. 12th)