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Tuesday, 22 April 2014
Words & Photography by Greg Klerkx and Luiz Hara
Where: 39 Albemarle Street W1S 4JQ, http://www.babborestaurant.co.uk
Cost: Antipasti range from £10 to £17, pasta and risotto from £15 to £30, main courses are priced between £26 and £86 for a 950g grilled T-bone steak for two. A less elaborate lunch menu is available at £22 or £26 for 2 or 3 courses respectively.
About: Babbo means ‘daddy’ in Italian. Any Italian restaurant that leads so proudly with such a strong statement of familial embrace may invite, among the more cynical diner, suspicions of kitsch. Thankfully, Babbo restaurant in Mayfair is an elegant proposition that manages to retain a homespun feel that is warming yet not grating. Likewise the restaurant’s food: anchored in tradition, yet executed with flare and precision.
What We Ate: We came for dinner, which features a small but creative menu structured in the classic antipasti, pasta, main fashion (there is also a more limited but reasonable prix fixe lunch menu). A number of Babbo dishes are made from ingredients shipped in once or twice each week from Italy, including Chianina beef for bresaola and the restaurant’s signature lasagne, and Burrata cheese for several dishes. We enjoyed the latter in the form of a starter, Burrata con pomodoro e basilica (£13.50); a generous blossom of purest-white Burrata cheese lightly dressed with tomato and basil. The cheese was delicate and feather-light, creamy and delicious.
Our second antipasti dish was inarguably the highlight of the meal. Fonduta di riso al zafferano con nocciole tostate e formaggio di capra (£13.50) is a mouthful to say, but worth every syllable. The rough English translation is ‘blended saffron risotto’, but this does not do justice to the dreamy, intensely flavourful delicacy that is served dusted with goats cheese snow and pistachio powder and dressed with pea shoots and amaretto. It tasted like a golden summer’s afternoon at a Tuscan villa: light and rich, comforting yet entirely new, and worth the trip to Babbo all by itself.
Perhaps because it followed the startlingly good risotto, the restaurant’s self-proclaimed signature dish, Lasagna al ragu di Chianina (£19.50), suffered slightly in comparison. There was nothing wrong with it – smoky and toasty on the outside, savoury, meaty and moist on the inside. But it was, merely, a fine example of the form, not wildly transcendent…admittedly a high bar, but one the saffron risotto had quite clearly set.
The other pasta course we tried, Tortelloni ripieni di gorgonzola, noci, pera serviti con salsa burro e vino rosso (£16.50), came without the lasagna’s ‘signature’ fanfare and perhaps as a result fared much better, with its intense, sweet-ish sauce (pear zest with butter and red wine) balancing nicely with the salty, pungent gorgonzola. The pasta for both the lasagna and tortellini were house-made, and delicious, al dente and light.
The mains kept up the high standard. Our only quibble with the Rana pescatrice in crosta di porcini, vegetali autunnali e polenta (£26.50) was that the porcini mushroom crust which enveloped the very generous serving of succulent monkfish could have been crispier, particularly as the accompanying polenta was suitably creamy and needed more of a counter-balancing crunch.
We had a variation on the Guanciale di manzo con cime di rapa e purea di patate al tartufo nero that substituted a succulent and perfectly cooked beef filet for the advertised beef cheeks, which still matched beautifully with braised turnip tops and black truffle mash.
To accompany our main courses, we had a side of zucchine fritte (£4.50), these were deliciously crispy courgette fritters, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
After such copious delights, we did briefly debate the wisdom of pudding. But we forged ahead and were glad of it. The Intenso Sapore di Limone con Gelatina di Fiori, Granita di Lime e Alveare dolci (£8.50) was a sweet-‘n-tangy blast of lime granite and lemon, shot through with chewy honeycomb and accented with hibiscus flower jelly…fresh and inventive.
Our second pudding was a neat plate of two small cannoli filled with sweet ricotta complemented with orange jam and pistachio ice cream (£8.50), which was beautifully made and very tasty though one could wish for one more cannolo to make a proper portion.
What We Drank: Not surprisingly, Babbo takes pride in its range of Italian wines (though its list is global) and we enjoyed several during our meal. The antipasti dishes were accompanied by a lovely Sereole Soave, softly floral and crisp with hints of pear. The pasta dishes were well served by glasses of Corvina Veronese with its peppery notes and slight astringency. With the monkfish, a glass of citrusy, vaguely metallic Malvasia was very good, while Nebbiolo – deep crimson, with brambly fruit and licorice – worked its dark magic beautifully with the beef. Another Soave, Tre Colli Recioto, somewhat sweeter than the Sereole yet still rather floral, was delightful with the puddings.
(Note: Babbo’s wine list was revamped for spring shortly after our meal, so expect a different set of offerings from the restaurant’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable sommelier. Generally, prices by the 175ml glass range from £7-£13, with bottles available at a wide variety of prices).
Likes: The blended saffron risotto should not be missed. The service is convivial and well informed.
Dislikes: None, though do calibrate your expectations accordingly for whatever follows the saffron risotto (it’s that wow).
Verdict: Inventive, delicious traditional Italian food with modern flair, served in a cosy environment. Highly recommended.