Babs, a European Grill Where Sparks Fly

Over the years, I have eaten many bowls of pasta with clams that have been rewired by a chef who was trying to stand out. But I had not come across one that made as much sense to me as the big, sloshing platters you get at old-line Italian-American clam bars like Randazzo’s until tripping into a new Greenwich Village restaurant called Babs this summer.

Mind you, virtually the only Italian thing about the tagliatelle with clams at Babs was the tagliatelle. The sauce was a mustard beurre blanc, one of those French sauces that all culinary-school students are supposed to be able to make in their sleep. Mustard beurre blanc is often found providing a decorous yellow veil over a chicken breast or salmon fillet. It is not normally poured over noodles. But, tossed with salty French ham and Manila clams smaller than a thumbprint, it made a strangely exciting bowl of pasta that was much more coherent than it sounds.

Once I got to know Babs better, I understood that strange excitement is what it does best. Its chef, Efrén Hernández, has talked about Babs as a European grill, and many of the dishes are seared over hot charcoal, but he has a wider frame of reference than that. He was raised in Southern California by immigrants from Mexico, and Mexican cuisine runs through his menu like an underground stream that sometimes gurgles up to the surface. Mr. Hernández is not particularly interested in fusion, though; as far as I can tell, he likes rubbing cultures together to see what color the sparks will be.

See, for example, what the menu calls divorced sea bream, a handsome dish that would be splashed around Instagram even more frequently than it already is if the dining tables were lighted by ceiling pinspots rather than disco-era chrome globes that look as if they were salvaged from Regine’s. The bream is split, and one side brushed with a red sauce and the other with a green sauce, before it is grilled over charcoal. The dish is an allusion to the two-tone pescado a la talla served at Contramar in Mexico City, itself derived from huevos divorciados, a breakfast of two fried eggs beneath two contrasting salsas. In Mr. Hernández’s kitchen, though, the red adobo at Contramar is replaced by a Catalan romesco, and the parsley salsa becomes a French pistou.

But surely the tortilla on its own plate off to one side brings it back to Mexico? Not so fast. According to the menu, it is a taloa, a Basque cornmeal cake that cooks from Bayonne to Bilbao have been griddling for centuries. The taloa at Babs is tender, smooth and floral.

Mr. Hernández has been cooking at Babs since it opened in July. He is also the chef at Mimi, a French restaurant a block away that is owned by the same people (Daniel Bennett, his brother Evan, and Louis Levy; they named Babs and Mimi after their grandmothers.) I haven’t been back to Mimi since Liz Johnson was the chef. She was aiming for a style that was at once brawny and lavish, and since taking over last year Mr. Hernández has seemed to continue in that vein while bringing his far-ranging curiosity to bear.

As they did at Mimi, the owners have planted a small curved bar right by the door at Babs. The cocktails stirred and shaken there are mostly recognizable relatives of classics, like a martini made with two brands of gin. There’s something charmingly self-deprecating about a cocktail list that includes Mount Gay and tonic, which seasoned barflies know as one of the drinks you can safely order in dives that don’t do anything else right.

The wine list, meanwhile, is mostly French and sticks to the old guard; you can tell it’s not trying especially hard to be cool by the way it has just one orange wine, lumped in with the sparkling wines. Only the wine geeks will wish for more, but the rest of us might wish there were as many bottles costing around $50 as there are in the $90 range.

The numbers on the menu can sneak up on you, too. My $48 lobster was a small creature that couldn’t have weighed much more than a pound. The server brightly suggested dunking its tomalley into the smoked potato purée, and I would have tried it if I had found any tomalley. And while I can imagine happily paying $36 for Babs’s lamb chops, I’d want them to be served with something more compelling than the cold, underseasoned “Basque potato salad” into which some baby sardines had apparently disappeared without a trace.

But there is nothing wrong with the charcoal-grilled swordfish with mint salsa verde, fennel and green olives, and if you ordered the chicken andouille this summer you found Mr. Hernández knocking cuisines together again, this time with a corn-and-chanterelles risotto under a slow-burning splash of Calabrian chile oil.

He shows how well he can work in small strokes with a layered appetizer of raw sea scallops, sweet potato purée and trout roe, seasoned with a briny and fascinating salsa of chopped cucumbers, seaweed and fermented serrano chiles; or the fried cod cheeks, tender and crunchy over an orange slick of romesco aioli.

Mr. Hernández’s imagination fights against predictability. A crab salad, for instance, doesn’t need to be interesting if it is fresh, but the one at Babs is both. It’s seasoned with a gribiche that’s full of chopped fresh dill, and then it’s piled up in a big beehive on top of a smoked potato pancake.

Like many small restaurants these days, Babs doesn’t offer many desserts, but the ones it does are far more intriguing than average. A fine apple galette is improved by a grating of Swiss-style cheese from Edelweiss Creamery in Wisconsin and by a drizzle of 20-year-old Pedro Ximénez sherry, thick as syrup and tasting like chocolate and coffee.

Why sherry with Swiss cheese? I don’t know, but Mr. Hernández does.

Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

Source link