You don’t walk into a restaurant knowing it’s going to become your favorite restaurant of all-time. It’s just a thing that happens—suddenly, and without warning. In the moment, you’re eating and thinking, oh, man, this is amazing. Later, you think, holy shit, I experienced food on a whole new freaking level. At least that’s how it was for me the first time I dined at Barbuto.
Our first meal at Barbuto was late on a cool Friday evening in early October, 2016. Kathleen and I were meeting two of my cousins for a late dinner on our first night in town. The place was packed and noisy—as you might expect from an ultra-popular West Village institution, especially one that’s a converted garage whose doors roll up to create a vibe that’s part dining al fresco, part dining in the middle of a busy NY sidewalk. The lively ambiance made it a difficult place to converse and catch up, but it didn’t matter since my mouth was so full of fantastic food I couldn’t talk anyway.
We fully expected the food to be great—Barbuto being the flagship restaurant of famed chef Jonathan Waxman. The man who mentored Bobby Flay, we reasoned, must be a hell of a chef. But even this pedigree didn’t prepare us for the delights in store for us that evening.
I ordered Chef Waxman’s most iconic dish, the roast chicken with salsa verde. The chicken is spatchcocked—the backbone removed, so the bird cooks flat—and roasted to juicy perfection in a wood-fired oven. This dish beautifully exemplifies the simplicity of Waxman’s style. With a fusion of California and Italian cuisine, Chef Waxman uses the best ingredients and cooks them perfectly, taking familiar classics to an entirely new level. Roast chicken often needs gravy to avoid being dry, but Waxman’s bird is as succulent and juicy as a piece of rare beef. This isn’t your mother’s Sunday roast; this is beyond your conception of chicken—what it is and what it could be. The salsa verde adds a savory herbaceous note, but the chicken doesn’t even need it. It’s that good on its own. Though it wouldn’t go amiss to order on the side some patate—golden brown crunchy potato nuggets covered in rosemary and pecorino.
In today’s fine-dining-obsessed world, I think it’s refreshing (and exciting) to find a place where rustic, simple dishes are, at least in my eyes, elevated to the level of any multi-star fancy-pants establishment. Take, for example, Barbuto’s bucatini alla carbonara, which contains only five ingredients—pasta, egg yolks, guanciale, black pepper, and cheese. That handful of ingredients combines to make the single most delicious dish I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Unlike many carbonaras, Barbuto’s stands out for its bracing use of black pepper which adds piquancy to the otherwise fatty dish. Not that fatty is an insult—far from it—the meaty hefty bits of guanciale studded throughout are another highlight.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I recently learned that Barbuto would be closing in May of 2019. I’ve only had the pleasure of eating there twice in my life—both meals a treasured memory to this day. Jonathan Waxman has indicated he wants to re-open in a new location and I hope every day that this comes to pass. Until then, I will just have to be satisfied with other, lesser restaurants.