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Last minute weekend trip report - Babbo, Minetta Tavern, Hearth, Maialino

Our close friends invited my wife and I to join them for a celebratory weekend in Manhattan. When I asked them what their plans were (other than an event on Saturday afternoon), they replied “we’ll leave that up to you,” which to me means: “let’s eat!” We’re in our early 40’s and friends in late 50’s.

Our friends had never been to Babbo or Minetta Tavern, so I was happy to land a last minute reservation at Babbo for Friday night, and easily got a table to Saturday brunch at Minetta Tavern. New places for me were Hearth dinner and Maialino brunch.

A little story first. After going for a morning jog in Central Park I finished up at 5th and 60th and headed for a food cart there to get a bottle of water. Wha . . .? It was the Wafels & Dinges cart! Despite an 11 am brunch reservation at Minetta Tavern, I indulged in a waffle with ice cream. What’s the point of jogging for if I can’t have two breakfasts? Last summer I had to hunt down the this cart, and after visiting Belgium a few months ago and tasting many waffles, I'm happy to say these are right up with the best and may even be my favorite.

Babbo.

Last minute planning was frustrating, but I scored a same day 6:15 at Babbo for Friday so changed our 5:30 reservation for Minetta Tavern to brunch there the next day. We were looking for an early dinner to fit with our plans for the evening, so we showed up at Babbo at 5:45 and were seated immediately in the front corner booth, prime real estate. If there was no table available for us downstairs we were prepared go elsewhere as we were celebrating and the upstairs dining room would have sucked the fun out of us. Downstairs next to the bar and prep-table is a fantastic atmosphere.

I am a beer and spirits “connoisseur,” but in NY I prefer to drink cocktails as they are usually of very high quality at good restaurants, more so than in Fort Lauderdale. My wife and friends are wine drinkers but they surprised me by ordering cocktails through dinner at Babbo as well (it was an early dinner). The bar at Babbo is limited, but we enjoyed excellent Manhattans, Bellinis. and my wife especially enjoyed a blood-orange Cosmo which tempered her enjoyment of the speakeasies we went to the following evening.

We are close enough with our friends that picking off each other’s plates is not only acceptable but encouraged – “eat! eat! come on I know you want it!” – so I wanted the meal to be as family style as possible. I tried everything; the others tried whatever they chose to. Working with our fantastic waiter (whose name I’ve forgotten unfortunately) we arranged for the food to be brought in four courses. 4 Antipasti, followed by 2 Primi (split between four plates), then 4 Primi and 1 Secondi, then 4 desserts. This way I enjoyed 15 dishes, not bad!

For a table of four:

1st
Salumi
Grilled Octopus
Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Mushrooms
Pig Foot “Milanese”

2nd
Gnocchi with Braised Oxtail
Mint Love Letters

3rd
Bucatini all’Amatriciana
Pappardelle Bolognese
Garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati”
Goose Liver Ravioli

Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads

4th
Caramel Cheesecake with coconut
Pistachio and Chocolate Semifreddo
Assortment of Gelati and Sorbetti
Biscotti and Cookies

Once again the service we enjoyed at Babbo has maintained a standard. Interacting with the staff was a pleasure, even the dour maitre d'. By the way, the maitre d' did give a slight smile and a brief nod in reply to my compliment as we were leaving. I have read complaints about him on this board but I think he is a perfect and professional maitre d' and a welcome contrast to many these days, who seem to be overly animated but vapid. Also, he gave us a great table. :)

A few brief notes. The Salumi was slight split four ways, but memorable. Highly recommended. Both mushroom dishes (Lamb’s Tongue and Garganelli) were relatively flavorless. I believe the Lamb’s Tounge used Brown Beech mushrooms and the Garganelli may have used the same ones, judging by their equal lack of flavor. These two dishes and the Pappardelle Bolognese which was relatively bland fell below the level of all the others in their failure to impress, although they were good in an inoffensive way. (On our prior visit the mushrooms in the Garganelli were a highlight). I ate almost all the Mint Love Letter by myself. After one bite everyone including me thought the mint was overpowering. Not wanting to give up so easily, I discovered the heavy mint flavor recedes after a few bites and I quite enjoyed them.

This time what would tempt me back to Babbo would be the memories of the Salumi, the Goose Liver Ravioli and the Sweetbreads. All I thought were extremely sophisticated. Oddly enough, as I normally enjoy more “impressive” desserts, after this elaborate tasting menu the assorted gelati and sorbetti will be the dessert I’ll most remember. An excellent blend of flavors, and served at a perfect temperature. The cookies were also well above what I was expecting, and I wouldn’t hesitate to order them again. The cheesecake was voted by the table as the best of the desserts and would be at home in a more expensive restaurant. Not to leave out the semifreddo, which was also excellent as was almost everything. A great mellow evening of club/bar hopping ensued.

Minetta Tavern

I loved this restaurant for dinner and was happy that the high standards carry over to brunch. One of my favorites for atmosphere and service. I had a waffle and ice cream about an hour before we arrived so I passed on the oysters and sausage appetizer, which I am still looking forward to eating someday. Pleased to see a cask ale being served, something hard to find in Florida. It is somewhat easy to find an excellent brunch in Fort Lauderdale, (and probably most cities), but Minetta was able to compete. We went with mostly breakfast foods which to me was a mistake, but the quality was consistently great.

We started with the Panier with an assortment of pastries from Balthazar which was tasty, our favorites being the pumpkin donut and chocolate bread. The Black label Burger seems more of a brunch food to me than a dinner food, and it worked better here than I remembered at dinner. It was ordered medium and was still exceptionally tasty. My wife ordered the perfectly serviceable omelet notable for the smoothness of the egg layer. I’ll have to learn how to do that! My Latkes were excellent, but really shouldn’t I be ordering a steak? The rib-eye wasn’t on the menu, but a had thought that was an option for some reason. The Brioche French Toast is also outstanding for a breakfast food. The Duck Hash is delicious, but the others at the table caught on to its richness and I was forced to eat most of it myself. :)

Now I am not a cake person at all, but the Coconut Cake is unbelievable here. This is only the second time I remember having a cake that I would go out of my way for, the other being the Carrot Cake at Palm. I would highly recommend the Coconut Cake, and will order it next time even over the excellent soufflé, normally my go-to desert at any good restaurant. We also tried the assorted chocolates from Jacques Torres, a perfect way to squeeze in one more taste of New York with our limited time, and a great touch to have on the menu.

Drinks: Raines Law Room and Death and Company

After our event on Saturday afternoon, we split from our friends and my wife and I headed out for some drinks at Raines Law Room before our 7pm dinner reservations at Hearth, arriving right at the 5pm opening. Great atmosphere, cannot speak to the service as we were so early, but very professional. We had planned on several drinks but ordered just one round before leaving. My wife’s raspberry tequila concoction was OK but one-note, my spicy whatever it was (no reason to remember) was watery and as we watched the bartender make it, it got an “assist” from our server(!) who dashed in 5 or 6 or some random number of drops of Cholula hot sauce since I said I liked a very spicy drink. It was now 5:45 and I figured we could catch a cab to Death and Company and be there by the time it opened at 6, and then walk to Hearth nearby.

Best decision of the day, because Eryn Reece at Death and Company mixed up some real cocktails for us and gave me a proper NY cocktail fix.

We arrived just at 6 behind about 8 other folks, and after a couple of minutes were ushered inside to find the bar seating full. I would have loved to watch Eryn work but that will wait till next time as we will be back. Our server came over and after explaining to her that we had 45 minutes to spare and no time to peruse the menu, she proceeded to “consult” with us on what we wanted, and recommended the three that we had. My wife had an off-menu tequila pineapple pomegranate mix that was perfectly balanced, but a little strong for her (how that can be a complaint I’ll never know).  I had a great spicy rum drink that was wonderfully complex but just a little too sweet for me. Our server then steered me to the “Terrible Love,” (Mezcal, Suze, St. Germain and orange bitters). A fantastic cocktail. Very sweet, Very bitter, perfectly balanced.

Hearth

Not recommended. There is not a lot of info here on Chowhound, but what there is generally seems positive. Well just for the record I would say the food and service are lacking compared to many other excellent restaurants in the same price range. Overall the four of us had the same opinion of Hearth – “good.” Atmosphere was nice, possibly sit at the bar and order some small plates? Food was hit and miss. I enjoy reading about food and researching restaurants before travel, and Hearth is now in the very small category of “disappointments” in NY (the other being a meal at Lamb’s Club just after it opened). Not to say that it was bad by any means, just that it was no better than good, which is not what the New York dining scene is for a Chowhounder. I’ve taken risks that paid off on mixed-review restaurants before (Sea Grill, see below for Maialino) so I approached Hearth with the highest hopes. We went here instead of Acme, so I’m probably thinking about the greener grass and all.

Service: Three, as in three separate apologies for the delay in our food arriving. Once before we had anything, then twice before the mains came out. 3:15 total meal time. When the charcuterie came some thick-cut toast was brought out that was blackened on the edges, which may have been OK on it’s own but certainly not with delicate spreads. I asked if I could please have some very lightly toasted pieces brought out. A few minutes later another plate of toast appeared that was even more and extremely blackened! We returned to the first set of toast, which after further consideration was very lightly toasted compared to the second set, and pulled the insides away from the crust to eat with the charcuterie. When we were nearly done, our server showed up and saw a huge pile of blackened crusts and asked apologetically if we would still like some lightly toasted bread. No thanks. So, an off day okay I get it. My favorite neighborhood joint I’ve been eating at for years had an off day once, but the 75 times I’ve had attentive service let me overlook that day.

Also, the server seemed to know the ingredients of the dishes but not anything more. I asked how the hanger steak was sliced and she had no idea. That is not such a problem, but later when my friend asked if the steak was OK to order medium instead of medium rare, she did not hesitate to say that would be fine even though I was wincing inside. I didn’t want to be rude by butting-in at this point, but indeed when the steak arrived it was cooked medium and was quite tough.

Food: We started with the Charcuterie plus foie gras and the Lettuce and Vegetables salad. The salad was good, and the foie gras was unusual and sweet, and also “good.” On the charcuterie platter the cured duck breast, duck rillette, and (rabbit?) liver pate were exceptionally good, while the rabbit ballotine and pig’s head terrine were surprisingly mild and uninteresting to me.” Next we paused with a side of gnocchi and hen of the woods. The gnocchi was fantastic and the rest of the table loved the hen of the woods mushrooms, but I thought they were too salty, although I have never had this crispy style before.

For the mains, two of us ordered the cod with muscles, which along with the gnocchi was the highlight and quite interesting and delicious. The other two mains included a hanger steak tough as noted, with an accompaniment of Autumn Vegetable Contadina that tasted for all the world exactly like the home-fries hash I get at my local diner from breakfast. I am not saying this to be mean, I am saying in a blind taste test I would be hard pressed to tell the difference. (I love the home fries with an omelet by the way). I ordered the Colorado Lamb three ways – filet of roasted loin, a small smoked rib, and lamb sausage with a chickpea curry feta and corn. The flavors were fine but boring, and the filet was a little tough and had me looking for sauce, which I found by dipping into my friend’s bagna cauda which accompanied his steak. The rib was excellent and flavorful but was just two small bites. The lamb sausage seemed lost on the plate and went uneaten after a taste.

We ordered three deserts, the Apple Cider Doughnuts, a Pear Spice Cake and the Valrhona Chocolate Cake. The donut had the benefit of being warm but otherwise was wholly unremarkable to us. The chocolate cake also failed to leave an impression and drew comparisons to a Starbucks product, although never having been to Starbucks I hope that is not being too harsh. The Pear Spice Cake was the only “bad” thing we ate all weekend and was unpalatably dry. Each of us had one bite out of curiosity and the rest was left untouched.

Chef Canora was not in the kitchen, if that would have made a difference.

Maialino

After Hearth, we almost changed our plans for Maialino and went to Public for brunch, as I had also read mixed reviews for Maialino. Well, I happy to say Maialino was a great success, and the one our friends most want to return to.

Service was excellent as expected. We started with the pastry basket and added a couple of toffee brioche buns on to that. All were very close to excellence, maybe they achieved it. Hard to compare to Balthazar’s as they were very different – Maialino’s tended to the sweet, but I thought they were a step up in execution. I enjoyed the chocolate croissant as much as any I’ve had in France, although it is less buttery and more crispy, which I think is a benefit in a filled croissant. The rest of the table swooned over the toffee brioche, but those were too in-your-face sweet for me. The Tomato Risotto Croquettes & Mozzarella were good for fried mozzarella, probably as good as you can get for such a thing.

I think we were all thinking that it would be better to order off the “lunch” side of the menu this time, and we order the Porchetta, the Tonnarelli a Cacio e Pepe, Garganelli with Braised Oxtail, and the Malfatti with Braised Suckling Pig & Arugula. All three pasta dishes were truly excellent, we all enjoyed them immensely. Did I mention our friends are Italian? They enjoyed these pastas more than Babbo I guess because they are more akin to what they are used to, and it is hard to disagree. I thought the Tonnarelli a Cacio e Pepe was too rich (but delicious nonetheless), but they disagreed. This was fine because they filled up on that and left more of the Garganelli with Braised Oxtail for me. My favorite (maybe?) was the Malfatti with Braised Suckling Pig & Arugula. The flavor was so intense and the pasta so delicious that I would have just as well done without the actual chunks of pork. Oh by the way the Porchetta was a sandwich, so there’s that.

Deserts were the Panna Cotta with Berries and the Olive Oil Cake. The cake was very good, it could almost have joined the pastry basket but I mean that in a good way – it was not too sweet. The mascarpone cream accompanying it though put it over the top, absolutely delicious. The panna cotta I think was my favorite dessert of the weekend. I hope the recipe is the same one in the Union Square Café cookbook because I would love to be able to recreate that somehow, although the perfectly balanced fresh berry sauce had a lot to do with the success of the dish.

Well, we had a great weekend and were enjoyably stuffed!

These are the antipasti at Babbo.

Pig Foot “Milanese”
Grilled Octopus
Salumi
Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Mushrooms and Egg

 
 
 
 
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  1. Pastas and sweetbreads at Babbo.

    Mint Love Letters (split portion)
    Gnocchi with Braised Oxtail (split portion)
    Goose Liver Ravioli
    Garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati”
    Bucatini all’Amatriciana
    Pappardelle Bolognese
    Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
    1. Desserts at Babbo.

      Assortment of Gelati and Sorbetti
      Biscotti and Cookies
      Pistachio and Chocolate Semifreddo
      Caramel Cheesecake with coconut

       
       
       
       
      1. Minetta Tavern brunch.

        Panier
        Latkess
        Omelet with Red Peppers
        Brioche French Toast
        Duck Hash
        Coconut Cake
        Assorted chocolates from Jacques Torres
        Hmm, where's that burger picture? Oh well.

         
         
         
         
         
         
         
        1. Death & Co. and Hearth.

          Death & Co. drinks
          Charcuterie with foie gras
          Gnocchi
          Hen of the Woods
          Lamb Three Ways
          Hanger Steak
          Roasted Cod with Smoked Mussels and Baccalà Mantecato
          Apple Cider Doughnuts
          Pear Spice Cake
          Valrhona Chocolate Cake

           
           
           
           
           
           
           
           
           
           
          1. Maialino Brunch.

            Bread Basket (partially eaten)
            Toffee Brioche (too slow again) :)
            Tomato Risotto Croquettes & Mozzarella
            Tonnarelli a Cacio e Pepe
            Malfatti with Braised Suckling Pig & Arugula
            Garganelli with Braised Oxtail
            Porchetta
            Panna Cotta with Berries
            Olive Oil Cake

             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
            1. What a great weekend! Thanks for the detailed report, wish I were there.

                1. Amazing report! Loving all of the photos, I'm sure I'll use them as references in the near future

                  1. Thanks for the thorough, detailed report.

                    SO goes to Hearth more for location than food. I have not been. It's good but not a destination place. He just went to nearby Apiary and loved it. A possibility for next time.

                    Glad to hear you had a good experience at Maialino.

                    1. Thanks everyone. For some reason from what I had read, I thought Hearth was a destination place. Some people really seem to be fans.

                      For me, Hearth would fit well into an East Village food crawl to sample the gnocchi and grab a glass of beer or wine (they have a small but decent selection of beer too). Keep with the potato theme and hit Pomme Frites after. :-)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: walker42

                        Hearth was probably more of a destination back in the earlier days, for the East Village itself and for being one of the pioneer in high end, refined Italian. But it hasn't been able to keep up as East Village homed more great neighborhood restaurants and Batali, White, and others dug deeper and better into Italian.

                        Thanks again for great report, you helped my settled on Maialino for an upcoming brunch.