In the first week of November 1999, Wife (then Girlfriend) took me to Babbo for the tasting menu to celebrate my birthday. While perusing the menu we came across the truffle tasting which in those days, being as young and aspiring as we were, was way out of grasp of our purse strings. Each year, as I age, Babbo reminds me I am doing so in the dead middle of white truffle season.
At this point, the Babbo birthday truffle dinner had reached epic proportions. In my mind it was the pinnacle of these affairs. I have tried truffle menus at many of New York's restaurants in the intervening years and am the sucker that adds white truffles to just about anything you will allow me to, happily paying the supplement and considering myself lucky to live in a place that these wonderful little nuggets of somehow sexy earth travel to. As part of our honeymoon Wife and I spent two of our days in Monforte d'Alba (go here as soon as you can) and another two in Alba proper. Wife argues that the reason I really love her is that I believe her breath smells like truffles. However, if ever asked, I had never been to the summit because I had yet to sit down at Babbo and have the truffle tasting menu for my birthday.
This was the year. A friend of mine asked for my help getting a reservation for Babbo for a special occasion, which happened to fall on my birthday. When I mentioned this fact he said "you get me this reservation, I'll take you for your birthday the next week."
Last night, under the guise of celebrating my birthday, six of us sat down for the truffle tasting menu at Babbo and everyone was a-titter. The waiter went through his routine describing the Babbo approach and method and service and declared us geniuses when he heard our plan was to each have the truffle tasting menu and pair it up with some of the more traditional Piemonte wines.
For the wine service, our waiter came clean on not having had the opportunity to taste many of the wines we were talking about and graciously bowed out, sending David over to field our inquiries. After some discussion involving facts like, that for an all truffle dinner we thought it best to go with a truly traditional minerally, austere, older Barolo or Barberesco and were thinking about starting with one of the Piemontese chardonnays, David strongly suggested a Trebbiano d'Abruzzo by Valentini '01. It was precisely the right thing; open tank fermentation and the resulting oxidization had made a white with real depth and complexity. It was fabulous, and got better once it lost some of the chill it had when first opened. It was all I could do to make it last until the first course.
While choosing the Trebbiano we also ordered the first red. Being six we decided we should or more, could, get a magnum. After a little give and take we settled on an '88 Barolo in magnum. Wow is this a wine. We lost a lot when we lost Guiseppe Mascarello this summer. Red fruit, flint, roasted meats, smoke, a truly special wine that evolved the entire time it was open. We all fought to keep it in our glasses through the entire meal just to see where it would go.
We discussed the idea of doing a vertical with our second bottle, and plucking another vintage magnum of Mascarello from Babbo's extensive list, but finally decided to go horizontally with an '88 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino, and an '88 Aldo Conterno Gran Bussia Riserva, both in bottle. The only flaw with these two amazing wines was their not being in magnum and coming after the Mascarello. Both were dynamite, with the Giacamo showing more anise and the Aldo being a little more fruit forward.
Truffles are an aroma, truffles are not a taste. Two things truly magnify the aroma of truffle efficiently, heat and lipids. Hot lipids are the easiest, and therefore probably best, way to express the truffle's genius.
In Piemonte, the home of the world's greatest white truffles, every restaurant has their version of a couple of dishes that do this; their simplicity is the key. There is fonduta, a hot bowl of melted cheese to which white truffles and, in very special cases, an egg are added. Taigarene is a small twist of doughy pasta served swimming in butter after which truffles are grated over it. Carne cruda is raw meat, usually veal, hand-chopped (but sometimes sliced) that gets good olive oil drizzled over it and then, you guessed it, white truffles flutter down on this as well.
Babbo's menu definitely embraced simplicity. There were eight courses, four of which involved truffles and it cost $250 per head. The other four courses were non-truffle desserts. First up was Tom Biggs farm eggs with guanciale. The egg had been fried sunny side up in a ring mold and some sliced guanciale (cured pig jowl) was fried like bacon and set on edge around it to make a frame. There was a drizzle of olive oil as well. Truffles were shaved tableside. Being at the farthest table from the kitchen, at the back of the upstairs, I saw what was definitely going to prove to be a high hurdle to our genius plan: the food was no longer hot, so we had truffle-y egg and great bacon, but, well, no heat.
Up next was pappardelle with Parmigiano Reggiano. Simply very wide hand-cut noodles dressed with butter and a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano. The noodle was an interesting choice, as its girth did not really encourage the truffles to spread and incorporate the way a smaller shape would have. But still an austere canvas to let the truffles strut their stuff, which they probably would have had the pasta been hot. The most interesting thing about this course was the red truffle. The insides of white truffles range from the grayish color of the exterior to the khaki color of a J Crew chino. In my experience the darker ones are more aromatic. The truffle sliced on my dish had a pink interior, beautiful.
Classic tortellini in brodo came third and greatly benefited from the fact that the brodo was brought upstairs in little cast-iron teakettles so when it was poured over the truffles that had just been laid over, that wonderful shock of truffle wafted up in all its glory.
Veal loin with pancetta and cauliflower: two slices of a veal loin on two fried cauliflower florets. The veal had sage sandwiched inside a pancetta wrap, then seared and served spread on a plate. Again a dish almost designed not to retain heat during its travel to table.
Next was a cheese course, the ever-present coach farms green peppercorn studded brick with some fruit mostarda. Next, a warm chestnut honey spice cake, a very good spice cake. Bittersweet chocolate crema followed and it would have again been a solid recreation, but it had had some kind of berry liqueur that all six of us agreed just wasn't right and somehow made the entire experience bad. Last we had a sampling of desserts from the menu; pear semifreddo, pumpkin cheesecake, and another version of spice cake, all quite good, the pumpkin cheesecake being the table's favorite.
We are lucky enough to be alive while there is a truffle glut. Two weeks ago the price of white truffles dipped from an average of $1800 - $2000 dollars a pound to $1100 - $1350. I would ballpark this menu at about ½ ounce of truffle per person for the whole dinner. Not knowing this, I am not sure how I would feel about the dinner, but armed with this knowledge I can't help but feel Babbo is ripping us off. There is no value and the cost of ingredient to cost of this dinner is almost criminal. Add to that the fact that nothing special has been done for this menu, it is all just other menu items adapted. The notion of covering plates for their long travel from the kitchen in order to save the precious heat was not even thought of. I have to say this meal is not worth the money. Go right around the corner to Cru and get the seven-course truffle menu for $220, the entirety of which includes truffles (right down to a truffle ice cream for dessert), where you will truly get your dollar's worth.
Maybe I built up the idea of Babbo's menu to heights it could never achieve. If so, I am sorry. Except for Lupa, I don't know a better place in New York to sit down and have a great glass of wine and an exceptional bowl of pasta. But Babbo is credited as being the dream place, where the true genius of the cucina d'Italia is supposed to be revealed to us, and I can't help but feel this menu was designed by businessmen to profit from, rather than by food-lovers to share a special product with us.