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Monday, April 12, 2004

Babbo and Sripraphai: Two down, how many more to go?

Day two in Manhattan, one dog-and-pony-show down, thirteen more to go. Ugh. The upside is, I've had two very pleasant meals so far, at Babbo and Sripraphai.

Last night we ate at Babbo. Actually, it was not at all our intention to go there, but we ended up there by a combination of fate and ignorance. Originally, I intended to take my colleagues to Lupa, but the hour-long wait (at10pm! no less) discouraged us from doing so. I thought of another place, a somewhat casual small plate-ish Italian restaurant, where I like to go just after I landed in town. The place was, actually, Otto, but my malfunctioned brain erroneously convinced me it was Babbo.

So there we were, at Babbo's doorstep. It was then that I realized my mistake, but I was far too exhausted and hungry to take us elsewhere. So there we went, into the relatively fancy Babbo in our shabby and wrinkled travel clothes and long jet-lagged faces.

The room was so full even at the late hour that we were seated at a table near the bar and right in front of the coat check. In fact, we were so close I could have conducted an ethnographic study of coat check tipping behaviors. (Well, actually, I did, the result was: $1 per coat, until the number of coats surpasses three, in which case the tips generally stopped at $3.)

To start we had marinated fresh sardines with radishes and basil, grilled octopus with marinated Barlotti beans and Lemoncello vinaigrette, and a plate of Salumi. The sardines were great, fresh and sharp, just like they should be. The octopus was quite tasty, if a bit overdone hence slightly toothsome. I'm not a fan of beans in general, but found the marinated barlotti quite nice. I was not too wild about the salumi, however. They were quite good for American standard, but far too mild and benign tasting when compared to what one gets in Europe. The tongue, in particular, was quite tasteless, and I am normally such a fan of odd cuts (I love St.John, after all).

We shared a primi of Mint Love Letters with spicy lamb sausage, and two secondi dishes of duck (prepared two ways: seared breast and confit over a “risotto” of chanterelles and chicory) and braised beef with polenta.

The Love Letters were quite minty, somewhat offensively so, I'd say. The secondi were wonderful. The duck was perfectly prepared, the breast pleasantly medium rare with crisp and flavorful skin, the leg confit-style was meltingly tender. The braised beef was also very flavorful and tender, though I'm afraid I didn't quite understand the point of the pool of inoffensive-tasting polenta on which the beef sat.

The sommelier, upon consulting with us on our preferences ( a very odd and disparage set of preferences, mind you), recommended a nice Refosco, a Moschioni 2000. At $78 a bottle, it was actually one of the less expensive ones on that list. I quite enjoyed the wine. It was fruity, with a slight taste of burnt caramel or even coffee, with a long finish of dark berries , but not at all a hugely offensive fruit bomb like so many California reds.

For dessert, we shared a chocolate and hazelnut cake with hazelnut gelato, and an assortment of gelati and sorbetti. The chocolate cake was good, but the hazelnut gelato was better. The assortment of gelati and sorbetti was a bit hit and miss, I like the pineapple, hazelnut, buttermilk and olive oil, but found the chocolate slightly muddy-tasting. The waiter who brought us the tray, for some strange reasons, misidentified most of the flavors.

The service in general was slow but friendly, so much so that the waiter decided at the end of the night to add an extra $30 on to our bill just to affirm our newly formed friendship. Well, that, or perhaps he needed a better calculator, as his division of the check into three was off by $30, to Babbo's benefit. He was quick enough to apologize and promised to run my credit card through again with the correct amount, but he shouldn't have missed it in the first place as we were one of the last tables to leave and the till was far from busy.

Tonight, work was done much earlier than I planned, so we were ready for dinner by 6.30. My colleague and friend, Doug, suggested Chinese. Running through the choices of Chinese in Manhattan but couldn't quite find one that would be better than the plethora of choices in San Francisco, I had and idea to revisit Sripraphai for the first time in so many years, to see if it was still any good.

We hopped into a cab to Queens, and were promptly stuck in a bumper to bumper traffice due to an accident on the bridge. My colleagues mumbled that this had better be good, I kept my fingers crossed.

Sripraphai looked just like it did so many years ago, like it was stuck in some sort of a time warp. Heck, most of Queens look just like it's been stuck in a time warp. Perhaps the feeling was accentuated by someone at a nearby table whose Tom Baker-ish looks could almost get him an audition for the role of the new Dr.Who.

Anyhow, on to the food, we ordered so many dishes as I wanted to satisfy everyone's taste. We had fried shrimp cakes (Tod Mun) to start. They were inoffensive enough, but a bit too doughy and barely tasted of shrimp. This wasn't a good start. However, the bad ju-ju was promptly done away with when a whole fried red snapper with green mango salad arrived. The fish was crispy and the salad perfectly seasoned, spicy enough to give a nice kick, but far from incendiary. We also ordered a chicken in green curry (Gang Kiew-wan Gai), Gang Som (sour curry with shrimp), and Moo Gra-tiem (pork with garlic and pepper sauce).

I was not too happy with the curries. The Gang Kiew-wan was good, but somewhat one dimensional, lacking the proper depth of flavor from the herbs and spices in the paste. I have a feeling that the paste was store-bought rather than made at the restaurant. Gang som was tasty, but so spicy that it lacked balance. I still prefer it to the green curry, however. The Moo Gra-tiem provided a welcome respite for our taste buds.

For desserts, we shared a grilled sticky rice and banana wrapped in banana leaf, and coconut icecream with sweet sticky rice. The grilled sticky rice with banana was nice, toasty and pleasantly caramelized. The coconut icecream was also pretty good.

Though I am not fully happy with the meal (I rarely am, even in Thailand), I must be fair and admit that it was far better than what one usually gets in the US. Sripraphai would qualify as a good inexpensive home-style restaurant even in parts of Bangkok. The food was honest and pretty good if a bit unspectacular, but for just about $20 per head, in the New York Metro area no less, what more do you expect?

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