Babbo: 39 Abermarle St, Mayfair
Babbo means daddy in Italian. Nestled deep in the heart of Mayfair, Babbo’s website promises “tradition, family, perfection and warmth” and was awarded the Zagat guide’s Best New Italian Restaurant for 2011.
Our expectations run high. From the street it looks stylish and inviting. Its sheer glass frontage belies a more traditional interior where family photos adorn the walls.
When my girlfriend and I arrive the atmosphere is relaxed; instead of the obligatory, overplayed lounge jazz, lively African music fills the room. This lends an informal touch, one imagines the waiter picked what he fancied listening to rather than obliging an offensively non-offensive playlist.
After ten minutes or so we are served a complementary amuse bouche; cuttlefish ink spaghetti on creamed spinach. It’s a very nice touch. The service is attentive – the waiter eager to provide guidance with the menu. Unfortunately the attentiveness becomes overzealous at times and a little overbearing.
We start with the slow cooked octopus, tomato and bread crostini and a salad of mozzarella with tomatoes – the latter a special recommended by the waiter. The octopus is very good; firm yet tender with a satisfying bite. The tomato adornment a little unnecessary perhaps (a green vegetable may have worked better). My companion found the dish a little oily.
The mozzarella is sublime; a painful reminder of how poor 99 per cent of the shop bought stuff is.
Served whole, also decorated with tomatoes, its centre is the perfect fondant of sweet, fresh and exciting cream. It is neither complex nor sophisticated but holds transportive qualities; ones evocative of adolescent abandon, first kisses and bare legs scratched by the brambles at the bottom of the garden.
Next is the pasta course, a very adult homemade tagliolini with lobster and clams in tomato sauce. The flavours are agreeable and delicate, but a little too delicate as the clams get a little lost in the sauce. Overall it is satisfactory and not too heavy – a vital factor considering the dishes to come.
The seabream alla mediterranea that follows is equally agreeable and adequate. The fragile white flesh falls off the bone enticingly; baked in a foil parcel it arrives moist and perfectly cooked. But as with the tagliolini, the flavours are a touch too subtle. I wonder if the chef is on a low salt diet.
We also try the veal rack and are disappointed; it is too well done for both our liking and a little too flabby, even for veal.
Before I go any further, I must mention the wines. Babbo boasts an impressively extensive wine list – with eight champagnes and five sparkling wines to choose from alone. There are 84 wines listed in total, as well as three ports, but only one beer: suggesting a confident commitment to viniculture.
Unsurprisingly, most of them are Italian with a few Burgundys thrown in for good measure – there is a distinct lack of new world representation.
We drink the San Vincenzo IGT from the Veneto region in North-East Italy. Recommended by our waiter, it makes an excellent companion to the octopus, its fruity overtones contrasting well with the mollusc’s salty richness.
Also excellent was the Coffele Soave Classico Ca Visco we have with our pasta course. Slightly more complex and at £12 a glass, thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.
For desert we try the homemade Valhona guanaja semifreddo (chocolate mousse) with fried gianduia chocolate balls. It is undoubtedly the star of the night’s show. The mousse intensely bitter – (the fallout from the first kiss) and the chocolate balls dangerously moorish.
We drank Morsi di Luce Zibibbo (Sicily), as recommended by our waiter. It was celestial, a fantastic supporting actor to the night’s hero.
Babbo is expensive – no two ways about it. Starters begin at around £10 with mains at £20 – £50. The wine list is vast yet lavish verging on arrogant – with only a handful available by the glass and eight at £30 or less (two of which are desert wines). But then excellent restaurants often are.
Sadly Babbo isn’t quite excellent – though it does try very hard. The highly attentive service implies that it’s listened to less than favourable reviews that have deemed it unfriendly in the past, but unfortunately it has over corrected itself.
In time it may well become the “perfection” it strives to emulate and in a couple of years’ time its prices (if they stay the same) will feel more justifiable.
The food is good and the wines better than good. Babbo is worth trying, but it’s not yet the daddy.
Bex Hobson is ‘Blogger at Large’ for the Abergavenny Food Festival