Restaurant Review: Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto

When the chef Jonathan Waxman opened Barbuto in 2004, the bookies of the food scene put long odds on its survival. Since making Jams into one of the defining New York feeding grounds of the 1980s and then losing it and two other restaurants by the end of the decade, Mr. Waxman had become something of a drifting gunman for hire, moving from one consulting job to another. One veteran critic told me confidently, when I said this new place looked promising, “He’ll be gone in a year.”

In fact, Mr. Waxman was still there delivering his idea of Italian cooking 15 years later, when a new landlord who had bought Barbuto’s building just south of the meatpacking district chose to let the lease expire. By that time Barbuto had outlasted dozens of nearby restaurants that had been deliriously greeted when they appeared, only to sink without a ripple some time later. Barbuto never changed chefs or adopted a tasting menu or went Nordic or eliminated meat or introduced an elaborate main course for 12 that had to be ordered weeks in advance or did anything else that made news, although just about every food publication in town took its turn admiring the roasted half-chicken under a shaggy patch of salsa verde.

Until its final month, May 2019, when it put out a video of the staff singing a theatrical farewell to the tune of “One Day More” from “Les Misérables,” Barbuto did very little for attention. It went about its business with a cool, steady assurance that if it kept doing things its way, people who knew the difference between heat and light would notice. Many people did, and they found it impossible, or at least unpleasant, to imagine downtown Manhattan without Barbuto.

Mr. Waxman clearly agreed, because his response to eviction was to build a second Barbuto about 500 feet from the first. After a short, ill-fated run in February and March of 2020, the restaurant returned in October. Again it sits on a northeast corner, at the intersection of West and Horatio Streets. Again the outside walls are largely glass, although on the new site they don’t roll up, which made the original space so appealing on warm nights. Again the kitchen is organized around the flames of a gas grill combined with a pizza oven in full view of the dining room, which is filled with many of the same square tables, the same chairs, the same plates and the same servers.

The bar is much longer now, making it easier to slither in without a reservation and call for a cocktail — maybe a soft-edged Negroni, or a mai tai with a pool of dark rum that you smell before you take the first sip, or a JW margarita, which may not be groundbreaking enough to justify the monogram but is smoother and more polished than most.

Standard operating procedure at this point is to order a dish of green and brown and purple olives dripping with citrus-scented oil. There is no reason to deviate from that, but the spicy roasted nuts, new since the move, do get along extremely well with margaritas and other cocktails with lime in them.

Custom also dictates that at least one bowl of kale salad must appear at the table. Although this heap of roughage looks as if it should be taken for medicinal purposes only, the greens have lost their ferocious raw quality after being thoroughly kneaded with a Caesar-like dressing. Basil is almost invisible, but essential. This is the One True Kale Salad, beside which all others are pretenders.

Before you follow custom, though, you should know that the salad of shaved brussels sprouts is brighter and sunnier, and puts its main ingredient through a metamorphosis just as remarkable.

A word should also be put in for the salad that combines warmed radicchio, crunchy rings of squid and a spicy red-pepper aioli that has an effect similar to Buffalo-wing sauce.

If none of this strikes you as especially novel, it is because the style Mr. Waxman helped to invent in California in the 1970s, at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Michael’s in Santa Monica, and then carried to New York at Jams in the ’80s, became something like the default mode for seasonal Italian cooking in America in the ’90s. Today, chefs who aren’t trying to reproduce with fidelity the traditions of Italy are walking through the doors opened by Mr. Waxman and a few others. On the other side of that door were mesquite grills, wilted salad greens, odd pizza toppings.

Barbuto has a smoked-salmon and avocado pizza, an edible museum piece. Even the more traditional pie, a Fontina- and stracciatella-topped number called the Hannah, uses not plain tomatoes but a long-cooked tomato ragù. Well, why not?

Still, there is more profound flavor in the wild-boar ragù that Mr. Waxman has been twirling chestnut fettuccine with lately. In fact, the pizza at Barbuto is generally upstaged by the fresh pasta, particularly if your definition of pasta takes in the splendid potato gnocchi — even though they are not boiled, but pan-fried in butter and olive oil and then scattered like throw pillows across a plate with sautéed romanesco or some other seasonal vegetable. Again, why not?

When it comes to main courses, there are several options but only one important choice: Are you going to get the chicken or something that is not the chicken? The other meats and fish tend to be filled out with vegetables that don’t just complement them but complete them — the pan-seared cod with fat gigante beans, as creamy as cake frosting; the craggy breaded pork cutlet with salad of crisp, bitter greens that’s as bracing as a snowball fight.

The chicken arrives all by itself, apart from a spoonful of rough, rustic Italian salsa verde; the arugula, parsley and other herbs are not so much chopped as slashed. Blots of it are scattered around the golden, pepper-flecked skin.

If you find roast chicken too plain to eat in restaurants, the one at Barbuto probably won’t change your mind. But if the plainness is a good part of what you love about roast chicken, you may feel as if you’ve reached a high peak of simplicity, a roast whose natural flavor is the point, cooked by a method that leaves each part of the bird almost equally juicy. And if you eat this with a side of JW potatoes, roasted to a crisp flakiness that almost no other kitchen seems able to achieve, you have got one of the greatest meals the city offers.

Heather Miller, the pastry chef, moved to the new site with the other Barbuto fixtures. Her chocolate pudding, gelati, cheesecakes and so on taste of constant tinkering and improvement, but look as if they just came together on their own. This is close to the restaurant’s ethos, which she must have carried in her back pocket when she showed up on Horatio Street.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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