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Dining Disappointment from Chowhound Favs!!

Hello all!

After weeks of research and days of earger anticipation, we finally started our NYC culinary adventure two days ago by having meals at some of Chowhounders' favourites - Aquavit, Babbo and Sushi Yasuda....We chose to avoid the 'French' because both Fourseasons and myself have eaten in Per Se, Daniel, Le Bernadin......etc

At Aquavit, though the Smorgasbord appertizer and the Venison loin with white asparagus and Lingonberry sauce entree were both fantastic, however, the meal was marred by a 'way-way-way' too salty Scandinavian potato and leek soup, which I was forced to complain and returned to the kitchen. With Chef Samuelson vying for a coveted Michelin star, this type of mishap should never be allowed to leave the kitchen! Strike One!

At Babbo, our party of five was met by a 'borderline hostile' Maitre D'. The reason being, he had to rearrange their 'even' number seating table to accommadate our 'odd' number party!! Thus, our evening started off with one big dose of 'atitude' . For food, we ordered almost all the favourite dishes mentioned on CH - Lamb's tongue, grilled octopus, crispy pig's foot, goose liver and beef cheeks ravioli, mint love letters, spaghetti Bolognese, sweetbread...etc. When we told our waiter that we would like extra side plates since we wish to share the dishes amongst ourselves a la ' Chinese' style, we were given another dose of 'atitude'. As for the food, sorry to say, none of the aforementioned dishes was good enough to 'wow' us, though a couple like the goose liver ravioli with its thick balsamic reduction and the Bolognese ragu with its sensational aroma did come close. Unfortunately, these were not enough to offset the overly charred and dry octopus, the heavily battered and bland sweetbread, the undersauced and lack of filling beef cheek ravioli and the mediocre tasting mint love letters. Based on these calibre food, why Michelin actually awarded the restaurant a star really puzzled us?!!! ( Both 'Fourseasons' and myself ate at three Michelin one star Italian restaurants in Tokyo - Aso, Honda and Suzuki, a few months back and every single one of the Japanese establishments produced far better executed and superior tasting Italian food and the service was much much better! ) Strke two!

Seriously looking to avoid a strike three, we all went to Sushi Yasuda for an Omakase sushi meal the next day. Thank God for Yasuda San, we finally have a meal to remember! Though not as good as the Michelin 3 star Jiro or Mizutani of Tokyo, however, the sushi was the best we have sampled in North America. The variety, freshness of the fish and seafood and most importantly, the quality of the rice were all top notch. We had at least 22 miscellaneous nigiri pieces each. The most interesting being a side by side tasting of Russian vs American Uni ( sea urchins ), Floridian vs Chinese vs Japanese anago ( sea eel ) and the first time sampling of an Alaskan ' white' salmon as well as Sea of Japan cuttle fish tentacles! Once again, service was only so-so! A definite hit thats just shy of a home run!

Lastly, a steak dinner at Keens was disappointing whilst an oyster/clams luncheon was pretty good. I'll let Fourseasons fill in the detail if and when he's got some free time!

Next time we'll give Grammercy Park and Eleven Madison-Park a try. BTW, has anyone tried Ducasse's Adour yet?

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  1. howdy charles,

    i'm sorry your visit was not all it might have been. eating at yasuda's station is sure to put a smile on most faces. babbo always works for me but there is no discounting your experience. looking forward to your next visit.


    1. You pretty much set yourself up for disappointment eating in a country with an OCD food culture, and amazing service and expecting the same in NYC or any place in the US.

      I'm kind of shocked that Yasuda served chinese anago.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Ricky

        ocd? obsessive compulsive disorder?
        please explain.

        1. re: Ricky

          According tp Yasuda San, the 'Chinese anago' were 'live' sea eels from NYC China town and their origin was not from the States. Of the three, this China town varietal tasted the best!

          1. re: Charles Yu

            Hi Charles:

            My recollection is different than yours. I think Yasuda said he bought the eel from Chinatown and marinated and prepared it himself but the origin of the eel is actually from Florida.

            1. re: FourSeasons

              Hello CH friend!
              I believe you were right here! Can you remember where 'the other' eel came from? With description from Yasuda on almost every one of the over 20 pieces we tried, I guess I must have had an information overload! Ha!

              1. re: Charles Yu

                Yes, with over 20 pieces, I was overloaded with the sushi as well.
                I just recall we had one unagi sushi, which is the one he source from Chinatown with origin from Florida, and one anago sushi, which I did not recall he said anything about it.
                Anyway, I was actually disappointed with above both pieces even though I enjoyed the meal there.

        2. Hi Charles,
          I ate at Babbo last night. Our party of 6 was lucky enough to have gracious service from the Maitre D', and the servers on the whole part. The only minor service slip was when one member of our party asked our main server if they served Creme Brulee, and the server slightly condescendingly (unless I read this into her tone) replied " This is an Italian restaurant. Creme Brulee is French. We serve Panna Cotta which is Italian".Sure, she was correct, but I just didn't think the school teacher like correction was necessary.

          To start, I tried the Rhubarb Bellini (not sure if it was made with French! Champagne), which was innovative and delicious- a light pink rather than a ruby red. I actually preferred it to Peach Bellinis I've had in the past.

          We had an amuse bouche (not sure of the Italian term for a small freebie at the start), which consisted of marinated chickpea crostini. Nice tang from a heavy dose of vinegar and rosemary.

          My antipasti was the Agreppi (I think?) alla Romana, a seasonal green from the Rome area (if I understand correctly) which was blanched, tossed with Champagne vinegar (French! Not Italian!), and served with shaved fennel and romano (I think) This was perfection. I absolutely loved it. Tried a bite of the grilled octopus, which was grilled nicely. Good, but not mindblowing.

          The primi I ordered was a spaghettini with lobster and chives. It was served in a light tomato based sauce and the pasta was cooked perfectly. I can't remember if the tomato sauce was mentioned. Very generous serving of tender, sweet lobster, and more pasta than I expected, especially considering the price point of $26. I'm used to paying more for much less. And I was surprised by the serving size. It was a good dish, although it didn't wow me. It was what I'd expect from a high quality, traditional Italian restaurant. I would order something else if I return again.

          I tried a bite of the saffron Panna Cotta- it was ok, it was novel, but I guess I don't like saffron in dessert. I feel like its taste belongs in paella, not panna cotta.The bite of the hazelnut and chocolate was rich- but I'm glad I didn' t order any of the dessets. I was amused that they served a marscarpone and maple dessert (Canadian! or Vermontian! not Italian!).

          I finished my meal with an espresso, and the tiny baci (which I really liked), amaretti and biscotti.

          Overall, I was happy I tried Babbo, and I think I would return if someone wanted to give it a try. It's certainly better than most Italian restaurants I've visited in New York.

          1. Keens was definitely not a good choice - but I remember Four Seasons wanting to stay in Manhattan. Prime rib was seriously oversized and pretty bland, and the porterhouse simply not up to the standards of Peter Luger or even other Manhattan steakhouses like Ben and Jack's and Wolfgang's.

            1 Reply
            1. re: yt28

              Hi yt28:

              Yes, I was disappointed with the steak at Keens. I don't know if it is because I have not acquired the taste bud of NY style steak, but found the Prime Rib and T-bone steak too dry and not juicy enough for me even though the flavor is rich. I just prefer the steaks in LA where I tried the Prime Rib at Lawry's, the Porterhouse at Morton's and Ribeye steak at Ruth Chris. Maybe I should have gone to Luger, like what you wrote.

            2. I have to chime in and add that I went to Babbo last week-am a regular there and never have been dissappointed BUT last week my rib eye was so blah!!! It normally is over the top-not this time. That won't however stop me from another future visit asap because I know how well everything normally is there.

              1. Hi Charles,

                After reading your post and the comments from others, I have to say that may be yours was an one off experience. I have been to Babbo many times and the food was consistently excellent. I too have dined in many great places and I didn't think Babbo was inferior. However, I don't know if it was because it was a holiday weekend and that sometimes the chief chefs were off during such time and it's not necessary the best timing.

                My one disappointment at EMP happened to be over one of those major long weekends, when I later learnt that Chef Humm wasn't there for the dinner as he was taking days off.

                Despite your experience, I will still recommend Babbo to others as my multiple experiences there were nothing short of greatness.

                As for Yasuda's anago, I don't think he could have bought anago at Chinatown. I think it would have to be unagi as I have never seen anago in Chinatown.

                1 Reply
                1. re: kobetobiko

                  I actually enjoyed the meals at Babbo's more than Charles, but I have to agree with him that it did not "wow" me either. I would just rate it "good" rather than "excellent", and had better Italian meals in a few other places. But I also think this rating has to be brought in perspective to our heightened expectation prior to the visit. Both of us, especially Charles, did lots of reading at the posts on Babbo's in Chowhound; we already knew what to order even before the trip and both of us were expecting to have the best Italian meal of our life. And that expectation was never met from the beginning to the end.

                  First, the attitude of Maitre D and server already put us off in the beginning. On the appetisers, I love the Crispy Pig Foot, but the grilled octopus and lamp's tongue were mediocre. On the pasta, I thought the goose liver ravioli was excellent, the beef cheek ravioli pretty good but the mint letter was more a let down with its gimmicky mint taste which was not done very well, in my opinion. The sweetbread, well this is the firs time I have sweetbread so no comparison can be made but I was not impressed at all. So overall, a few hits and misses. I would love to go back again to try other dishes in Babbo's but would not terribly miss it if that did not happen.

                  Yes, you are right that it was the unagi, not anago, which I explained in the post above earlier.

                2. I find your thoughts on Babbo interesting and illuminating. I have been several times in the past year, to Babbo and to some of the other places in the much-vaunted Batali empire. Personally, at least at Babbo, Lupa and Del Posto, the one thing I find absolutely beyond reproach is the service and the wine program - especially at Babbo, I find them to be courteous and extremely accommodating to requests for "share" plates and such things (actually, they broke the dishes up into multiple portions for me and my guests when we have asked). So, I am sorry to hear you were dissatisfied with that aspect, as I think Batali/Bastianich really go out of their way to get it right, and in my opinion 99% of the time do.

                  That said, I have had some pretty hit-or-miss dishes there of late, particularly the rock shrimp spaghetti (laden with a ground pork - forget which type now, but it overwhelmed the dish) and the spaghetti alla chitarra (greasy, flavorless, generally horrifying). I also have read (I believe in Bill Buford's "Heat") that, generally, after a certain hour of the night, the pastas are lower in quality because they reuse the water throughout the evening, and at some point, the water is infused with too many flavors.

                  I am heading back again this weekend and hope to have nothing but successes. I do think Babbo is an outstanding restaurant, but if you read this board and listen to people generally, it would still be easy to get way-too-high expectations. Perhaps because it is affiliated with Mario Batali, or because it is so hard to get a reservation, people refuse to see anything but excellence. If you or someone else told me they were coming to the city on vacation, I would still unreservedly recommend Babbo - BUT, I would not suggest it is the only Italian restaurant in the city, or that it's not capable of serving a bad meal.

                  1. Hi:

                    We've split a general discussion about the quality of service in Manhattan versus that in other cities to the Not About Food board:


                    Please keep the dicussion here focused on local chow.


                    1. Sounds like you need to just try NYC in a totally different way. I love eating here and rarely have Babbo kind of meals. Eating can be serious and focused or simple fun ... come to the East Village ... visit the best Dumpling Houses in Chinatown. I don't think NY is for fine dining anyway ... other cities win there ... but here we work hard and then play hard with cocktails and fun different food. Give it a try.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: chinaplate

                        While I agree with you that NYC has a wide range of moderate to inexpensive restaurants, I disagree with your statement with regard to fine dining. I think most people would agree that when it come to high end restaurants, NYC ranks very high in comparison.to other cities in the U.S. and around the world. Top-notch chefs come from all over to work here, and many end up opening restaurants of their own. For example, Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud could have located their eponymous flagship restaurants in any city in the world, but they chose to do so in NYC. I think that speaks volumes.

                        1. re: chinaplate

                          I definitely agree with RGR. How can you say that NY is not for fine dining? Although we may not be up there in the percentage of great restaurants, but only because there are just so many restaurants. But if you want to count numbers, I think it would be difficult to find as many great restaurants in other cities. However, there are certainly enough stand-outs all over the country. What this thread also shows us is that you can have a good or bad experience in the same restaurant, no one is consistently the best to everyone, and another thing is, you do not always get what you expect in the summer in NY because that is the time that many chefs take vacation.

                          1. re: robinsilver

                            There was a time, back in the day, when haute French restaurants used to close for an entire month in either July or August. Although top-notch restaurants now stay open throughout the summer, there should be no excuse for providing anything less than stellar cuisine. After all, restaurants do not offer a discount when the executive chef is not there. From my experience, the truly great restaurants are those where the quality of the cuisine is such that you cannot tell if the chef is in the kitchen.