Óbiká Mozzarella Bar, Where Buffalo Roam
Three white blobs glow on an elongated plate, cushioned by some attractive but useless baby-spinach leaves and attended by a few cherry tomatoes parsimoniously cut into halves. The "degustazione di tre mozzarelle di bufala" ("tasting of three buffalo mozzarellas," $21) is the centerpiece of the menu at Óbiká, a new restaurant on Madison Avenue that styles itself a mozzarella bar. Meaning "Here It Is" in the quirky dialect of Naples, Óbiká caused a sensation when the original opened five years ago in Rome, a few blocks west of the Spanish Steps in an area of twisted alleyways and charming unexpected squares.
Soon enough, Óbiká became a chain with international pretensions. The New York rendition is the fifth in a growing roster that takes in Kuwait City, London, and Tokyo. Our branch perches in the soaring glass atrium of the IBM building, and seating is confined to a curvilinear bar and long, communal table, at which one sits somewhat precariously on a high stool. Just like the Roman Óbiká, the New York place is situated in a paved courtyard—but one that causes us to reflect on how joyless the city's modern public spaces are as compared to those in Rome.
While one might expect a dozen or more choices at a place that styles itself a mozzarella bar, Manhattan's Óbiká offers only three options. The first is a mozzarella di bufala imported from Paestum, Italy, a town on the Bay of Salerno famous for its Greek ruins (the town is said to have been founded by Jason and the Argonauts). If you've never tasted buffalo mozzarella before, it's stunning: buttery and rich, with a surreal sheen that suggests a lump of white plastic about to melt on an electric burner.
The same cheese, smoked, is the second selection—just as creamy, but with a savor like an oak log barely smoldering. Unlike New York's own smoked mozzarella, which develops a hard, brown pellicle, the surface of the smoked Paestum is soft and crazed with delicate black lines. The third cheese is somewhat larger than the others, made in Woodstock, Vermont, with domestic-buffalo milk. The texture is firmer and the taste less compelling than the Italian examples. Can't we do better? (Or is the choice calculated to prove Italian products are superior?)
A historical aside: Buffalo mozzarella is not fabricated from the milk of the American bison, but from that of a long-horned gray water buffalo imported into Italy from India around 600 A.D. Regulated by the Italian government, mozzarella is manufactured in a region that runs along the Mediterranean coast from Paestum to Rome, the traditional range of the animal. The fresh cow's-milk cheese that New Yorkers call mozzarella is known as fiore di latte in Italy and, contrary to most accounts, is the cheese used most often today on Naples pizzas. Never let anyone tell you that our city's wonderful cow's-milk mozzarella is inferior; Óbiká is crazy not to serve it.
Everything at Óbiká revolves around the three mozzarellas. You can have any of them paired with a variety of accompaniments ($10 to $17). These include the usual prosciutto-like charcuterie, of which the best is "prosciutto cotto grigliato all erbe," a splendid roast pork seasoned with herbs. Vegetable accompaniments include cherry tomatoes offered with a fantastic light pesto, and a caponata—a Sicilian relish of eggplant, tomatoes, celery, raisins, and pine nuts—that's absolutely the best in town.
The same cheeses are also deployed in roulades, rolled up with fish or charcuterie. The version that wraps mozzarella around a filling of smoked salmon is the only one that doesn't make sense. Then, there are tossed salads featuring cheese, cured meats, and raw vegetables tossed helter-skelter, as if the other menu sections had exploded and been caught by the black-clad attendants in bowls. These are principally for Atkins acolytes, and you'd be surprised how many people I saw around me patting themselves on the back at the thought that they were having a very healthy lunch by skipping the carbs. Wrong! Or maybe they didn't want to pay the extra $3 that Óbiká charges for a basket of stale, pre-sliced bread.
I'll wager most critics are waiting to review Óbiká after it gets its liquor license. At that point, Óbiká will supposedly remain open later than its current time of 6 p.m. But when I asked the manager when that would be, he shook his head sadly. Come to think of it, it's hard to imagine that the IBM folks want people wandering around their sacred temple in a tipsy state, blissed out on wine and cheese.
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