When in New York…Mario Batali’s Babbo

But this is the other side of wonderful
And it’s not the side you want to be on.
I found myself here yesterday
And I, I can’t go on….
When I was walking the streets of New York.
When I was walking with the dead.

The last time I was in New York was the lowest point of my life. New York has never been an easy city for me to be in, but I keep returning as a test for the famous maxim that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” I am here for a series of workshops on educational differentiation, but my first day was my own to rest, walk and reflect on the world we live in.

My day began with a smooth flight from Toronto through Porter airlines, a decent cab ride into the city, and then about three hours walking in the scorching heat of a Manhattan summer. On the taxi ride into Manhattan one frustrated New Yorker smashed at the window as we went around a turn; this city runs on anger and drive to get to the top. Taking V.’s advice, I decided to walk up the Avenue of the Americas to Central Park and to enjoy an afternoon exploring there.

Do not, I repeat, do not walk through Central Park in cowboy boots. I had my first New York hot dog in about 12 years. They still remind me of the hot dogs I used to cook for the other kids when I was in Grade Six…boiled with a bun and lots of mustard to make it edible. After sweating so much from the heat though I needed the salt.

 I did have a brief encounter with the nicest hustler. He was pretty impressive with the way he forced me to keep talking about nothing – the key to the hustle is to keep the grift talking until you have their trust. He was commenting on a photo I was trying to take in the park, then on my tattoo – hey, man I REALY like your style – much to his dismay I did not stay around for his actual con.

V. suggested that I hit Magnolia Bakery for a few select cupcakes. Last week I was in Chicago and went to Bliss; sorry, Magnolia, but you got nothing on Bliss. I found the buttercream icing to be too whippy and without substance. The cakes themselves were good, but not worth $3 each.

I slept for two hours and then hoofed it to Mario Batali’s flagship Babbo restaurant. A tough place to get a reservation for, but with a walk-in for one person to the bar it is about an thirty minute wait. I ended up being able to do a full tasting menu for the night and that meant getting a better sense of what Batali interprets Italy as being. Let me assure you that Italy is better; let me assure you that V. and I will kill that meal after one night in Madrid, but that it is probably the best meal on this continent for what it is. Batali understands what he does and his staff do the vision well.

My meal was flawless. I had multiple courses of perfect meals matched with wines until I went rogue from the Traditional Tasting Menu and asked for the octopus. It was super-salty, the kitchen over-seasoned it,  and I got comped it by the server. If you get a chance to blow $200 in NYC for food, then Babbo is the bomb. Kill it or go home.

The pappardelle with morels and thyme was my favourite dish; the butter, noodles and morels blended into a beautiful dish. The fava beans with the coppa was excellent, and the guinea hen was flavourful. The Tasting Menu was a good value for superb food, and Babbo is a restaurant that I do enjoy.

My initial thoughts on New York are that everyone is one the hustle and that the hustle is what makes the thin, hungry look appealing to a world where that edge is non-existent. People like how New Yorkers look, but I doubt they realize the look comes from burning life to the very end to get ahead. One night in NYC made me feel like Toronto is soft, and that what I have is so good. I watched a crew of ten nobodies work with a nobody model like she was god for thirty minutes today; my hot dog never tasted so good. New York misses the importance of reality but that is okay if you are just here for the illusion, Peter Pan.

New York forces me to evaluate how I am doing against the real world: I am not Dave LaChapelle, nor am I Uncle Louis. I feel infinitely better than I did three year ago and that makes all the difference. The Leica has been ruling supreme thus far. It gets me the shot no matter the light, and it is pretty non-imposing to most people. At Babbo, a Chinese patron went wacko because he recognized the actual camera, while an art student was just impressed that I was shooting film. In the end, I do feel like the Leica M3 is THE New York camera, and it has been pretty good for both the candid photographs tonight and the shots in Central Park.  I would have captured more shots with the MkIII, but this is my vacation and I need some rest. I do not care what I capture insofar as I care about what I experience.

If I have to admit one thing, then it is that I do not deserve to enjoy the great food and shelter that I do. The world is filled with better and worse people than me; I will take it because I can, but I get that it is a blessing that I can enjoy the life that I do. All of these photos were taken with my iPhone 4. Through New York and Chicago, it has been a great way to capture the basics snapshots of a trip – these are not killer foodie photos of Batali’s greatest, but the images give an impression of what I was able to enjoy over the three hour meal. I bought an iPhone 4 to keep me organized and let me keep in touch with the world when I am on the road. It has the added benefit of having a decent camera that lets me take okay snapshots. I would never say these are photographic shots, but rather they are okay captures to get a point across.

Alinea, Charlie Trotter and a few others beat out Batali, but what his apprentices do, they do better than anyone else. I had some amazing food tonight. Still, the streets of New York are filled with those who did not handle the stresses of what has to be the hardest city in the world. People look hard here. Small town people confuse it with sexy, but I know the New York look as being hard and lean.

The streets are filled with the broken bodies and minds of those New Yorkers for whom the hustle was just too much. I am going to sleep. I know I am not on the street in the toughest place on the planet, and I appreciate that.  A great day one…but in New York anything can happen and it will.

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