Barbuto’s legendary wood-roasted chicken
Named after a beloved dog, whose image appears in line drawing on the shirts of the waiters, Barbuto was a project of chef Jonathan Waxman that occurred in a somewhat fallow period of his career. When it opened in 2004, it was decidedly off the beaten path, a canteen in a West Village photo studio with a wonderful location on bucolic Washington Street, open to the summer breezes off the Hudson a block distant. Early on, the diners were models, photographers, and ad people; eventually the place developed an avid neighborhood clientele.
Noise levels aside, Barbuto might be the city’s greatest summer retreat.
Waxman had been a seminal character in the introduction of California cuisine to NYC, after being chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, his home town, and later at Michael’s in Santa Monica. But it was Jams, opening on East 79th Street in 1984, where he had his greatest influence on the cooking of the city and the nation. There were other chefdoms and consultancies along the way, but Barbuto felt like a sort of retirement for the chef. In the early years, he was often to be seen cooking in the kitchen; not so much now, as he’s become more of a TV personality.
I went with a friend on the evening of the Pride parade, and the colorful tumult on the streets made the open-air premises of the restaurant seem more serene. The place is comfortable–like sitting in a friend’s rather large garage–but the volume level can be deafening. The staff, however–both front of the house and back–is one of the industry’s most efficient. This is a well-run place.
We sampled Waxman’s signature dish, half of a chicken with a nicely browned skin, roasted in the wood-burning oven and gobbed with an Italian salsa verde, which in this case had a touch of lavender in it, not unwelcome. The bird was every bit as good as I remembered it.
Where your chicken is prepared in the open kitchen
Squash blossoms made a nice seasonal starter.
I watched the chicken gal stand by the oven all evening in the open kitchen, and saw her dispatch nearly a dozen of those birds, finishing them by pouring the boiling juices from the baking pan over the skin to enhance its crispness. That chicken, served all alone by itself on the plate, is unforgettable, and there won’t be a morsel left.
We started the meal with squash blossoms, three to a plate and fried in something that seemed like a lighter version of beer batter. No ricotta stuffing, which was fine. We also had an order of oven-roasted potatoes with grated Pecorino and rosemary sprigs. Technically, it’s a contorno–a vegetable accompaniment to the main course–but it functioned spectacularly, and economically, as a starter.
Coming at the same time as the chicken was the spaghetti carbonara (the pasta here called by its more poetic name of “chitarra,” referring to the guitar-like apparatus that’s used to form the pasta). Dotted with generous amounts of pancetta and plenty of cheese, the pasta was one of the two best I’ve had in the past month. The other was the same dish at Rosemary’s.
The amazing cheese-dusted potatoes
Chitarra alla carbonara
For dessert, all we could fit in our stomachs was a flaky lemon-cherry tart served with ice cream. The wine program is expensive, of course, but there are some bargains, and for all bottles you’re given a choice of glass, 500-milliliter carafe, or full bottle. You’d be surprised how easy it is to make do with 500 milliliters instead of the usual 750 milliliters represented by a bottle, and that lowers the cost of your wine choice by one-third. A falanghina from Campani (a white) set us back $24 for 500 milliliters, and, with its minerality, provided a fine foil for both the chicken and the spaghetti.
Dinner for two, with wine, tax, and tip, $125
775 Washington Street
For dessert, a cherry-lemon crostata, served with ice cream
A corner of the open-air dining room at Barbuto