Like magicians, wildebeests, and professional gamblers, chefs tend to be a peripatetic group. They get bored, they get into disputes with the owner, and before you know it, they’ve packed up their knives and are on the road again. Some high-level chefs manage to find stability in all this flux, and then there are others, like Jonathan Waxman, who seem to revel in it. Waxman made his reputation in California, where he ran the kitchen for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse during the late seventies. His first New York success was at a restaurant called Jams. When Jams closed, he moved back to California, dabbled around for a few years, then returned to Manhattan and opened the acclaimed downtown restaurant Washington Park in 2002. But Washington Park closed suddenly, and just as quickly, Waxman has reappeared, not in California this time, and not serving the kind of West Coast, Greenmarket cuisine he is famous for, but slinging pasta in the West Village, at a new Italian bistro called Barbuto.
At first glance, Barbuto (the name means “beard”) seems like an odd match for a chef of Waxman’s talents. The restaurant is located on Washington Street, on the westernmost fringes of the West Village, across from that ageless Mexican-food totem Tortilla Flats. It occupies a large, airy space with curving, garage-style doors, which in the spring will open up to allow café tables to spill onto the sidewalk. With the doors closed, however, the room has a bare-bones, utilitarian feel, enhanced by café chairs, white-painted brick walls, and an open kitchen, where Waxman himself can be seen wandering to and fro like a captain on his bridge, muttering commands, popping tasty morsels into his mouth, and tending to the wood-burning brick oven, which flames away in a fashionably rustic manner, against one wall.
“Barbuto is an Italianate version of the Odeon French-brasserie model.”
The small, aggressively seasonal menu (it changes nearly every day) also has a bare-bones, utilitarian feel, although almost everything on it tastes good. The first dish I sampled was a plate of warm, slightly wilted wild chicory, touched with anchovies and served with a fried egg on top. A steamy bowl of country soup made with farro and shreds of savoy cabbage arrived after that, and then a dish of squid salad doused with garlic, soft chickpeas, and a dressing that tasted pleasingly of lemons and tahini. These were only precursors, however, to the more starchy, satisfying items like bucatini (perfectly al dente and drenched in a sauce of creamy Parmesan and crushed walnuts), delicious risottos (containing pearly shrimps one night and pancetta, onions, and marjoram the next), and the occasional dish of bacalao (it was on the menu one evening, then off again), which the chef lards with smashed potatoes, pan-fries to a kind of golden, pancake crispness, and serves over thick slices of toasted ciabatta bread.
With its perpetually crowded bar and air of casual though carefully cultivated hipness, Barbuto turns out to be an Italianate version of the classic Odeon French-brasserie model, only, mercifully, there are no frites on the menu and every entrée costs under $20. Most of the entrées, too, are fired in the brick oven. For decades, Waxman has been famous for his flattened chicken, but if anything, the simple, unflattened version at Barbuto is better. The meat is tender, the skin has a golden, crackly Peking-duck texture, and the whole dish is smothered in a rich, lemony salsa verde. You’ll also find wedges of lemon decorating the very fine skate (rolled in a blanket of thick, crunchy bread crumbs), and lemon in the sauce (a veal reduction laced with anchovy butter) dressing the platter of plump, nicely grilled veal sweetbreads supplied, according to our gregarious waiter, by an organic farm in Pennsylvania.
If organic sweetbreads aren’t your cup of tea, try the oven-baked salmon or the oven-baked scallops (threaded on a wood skewer with slices of blood orange) or the rib eye, which is almost tender enough to cut with your fork. None of these dishes are extraordinary, but they’re not bad for a casually hip neighborhood joint, and you can always complement them with bowls of the fine, grainy house polenta or the broccoli rabe, which is soft without being too oily and tart without being bitter. There are only three or four desserts available at Barbuto, the best of which is a crumbly lemon torte straight out of one of Alice Waters’s early cookbooks. Possibly Waxman even made it himself, which means you better hurry down to the Village for a taste before this talented, itinerant chef skips town once again.
Sant Ambroeus is another itinerant culinary phenomenon new to the West Village, only instead of just the chef’s moving to a new location, this time it’s an entire restaurant. For years, the proprietors of this ritzy Italian establishment peddled high-end pastries, gelato, and pastas to a devoted clientele of lunching ladies and European swells on the upper reaches of Madison Avenue. But the original owner sold his lease four years ago, and now his son, along with a partner, has decided to reopen the old restaurant (there’s a branch in Southampton as well), replete with gleaming cappuccino machines, a gleaming pastry case, and signature salmon-pink tablecloths, on a quiet, formerly bohemian corner of West 4th Street.
The affect of this new uptown arrival in the Village is a little startling, like having a flamingo suddenly turn up in a familiar old chicken coop. The traditional Sant Ambroeus gelatos are still intact, and so are the trays of sugar cookies, fruit tarts, and domed chocolate cakes, arrayed in colorful rows like a collection of Easter hats. Unfortunately, the Upper East Side prices are intact, too, especially at dinner, when a very fine beef carpaccio (served with flat shavings of Parmesan) and a good veal Milanese cost close to $50, not including a glass of wine or even bubbly water. If you can get over this sticker shock, most of the food (with the exception of the average pastas and risottos) is pretty good, albeit in a traditional, uptown way. If you can’t get over it, then drop in at breakfast time, when you can loiter at the espresso bar with all sorts of bewildered Village types and dine on semi-economical focaccia sandwiches and a single soft-boiled egg, served on a doily, in the proper Upper East Side manner, with toast points and a silver spoon.