No one is more closely associated with California cuisineat least the New York version of itthan Jonathan Waxman. Arguably one of the first celebrity chefs, he left Santa Monica in 1984 and set down at an East 79th Street restaurant called Jams. Composed of big strange salads, barely poached vegetables, lightly seared meats and fish, and a simple roast chicken with fries that seemed terribly déclasséand wonderfulto Upper East Siders, the menu framed an American answer to French nouvelle cuisine. It took the city by storm, or at least by light drizzle. At Jams, Waxman is also credited with the city's first open kitchen.
But the Upper East Side was already waning in popularity as a dining destination, and Jams tanked in 1987. After disappearing for 16 years, Waxman re-emerged in 2003, roast chicken in tow, at Washington Park in Greenwich Village. His lively and expensive menu changed daily, and he was often seen in the elevated kitchen at the rear of the dining room, a gray-bearded figure who seemed to be having a great time. But though the restaurant was often thronged, it closed abruptly the next year.
Sporting a very shaggy dog as its logo, Barbuto ("beard") was born soon afterward, located on the ground floor of Industria Superstudio in the remote Village nabe known as the West Coast. Not only is the kitchen open in the concrete-floored space, but the entire restaurant is open too, fronted by glass garage doors that are raised in good weather. And the rentable studios upstairs guarantee a ready supply of models, the sine qua non of the wildly popular restaurant. Unexpectedly, the prices on the Italian-inspired menu are cheaper than you might have feared.
Waxman's signature roast chicken ($17) still lights up the menu, a half-bird with a deliriously crisp brown skin, now slicked with Italian salsa verde. Fries ($5) must be purchased separately. As I sat on a rainy evening with three friends, carb loading our way to a Ben Kweller concert, we demanded the fries as an appetizer and dug them so much, we ordered another round for the main course. Other praiseworthy selections included a roast baby-lamb shank in brown goo with little cubes of celeriac and a gorgeous-to-look-at plate of delicate pork ribs.
That evening, we were also impressed by the salt-cod appetizer ($9), a combined patty of taters and fish that was browned on both sides and planted on a piece of toast. A dribble of oily vinaigrette added just the right oomph. But on another occasion, the patty tasted woody and bland. Had they washed too much salt out of it? By the way, most of the appetizers, even when they don't read as such on the menu, turn out to be weird salads. The one of shaved root vegetables is the most interesting, while the one matching tender squid and Bibb lettuce left us wanting more squid.
Even better than the roast chicken is spaghetti carbonara ($16). Aping the Roman original, it deploys egg yolksbut no creamand plenty of cheese and diced hog jowl. I was still thinking about it at the show, as I picked pasta out of my teeth, pondering the lyrics to Kweller's "Wasted & Ready": "Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti/I am wasted but I'm ready/Running as fast as I can."
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