It had been so long since I dined at Bibiana that it got moved up from my “short list” to my “critical list.”
I pulled up a seat at an empty bar at what was a very full restaurant, with a large private party going on to the left. It was a beautiful day outside, and I’d taken a leisurely walk to the restaurant, and continued to unwind with a Campari and Soda ($12, WTF?!).
Chef Nick Stefanelli was working right in front of me, and I was certain he saw me, so rather than play the farcical game of false anonymity, I texted him, and said, “Can you make me 3 small plates, your choice?”
He wrote back, “Who is this sorry”
“Rockwell I’m six feet from you”
Then he poked his head out, looking like a Whack-a-Mole, and saw me, saying he’d pick a few things.
There are two ways to look at this: 1) I was going to get the chef’s best effort, and everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt, and 2) I’m about to report on what the chef himself felt were the best and most representative dishes he had to offer. Both are true, and the latter is (in my opinion) extremely helpful to anyone wondering what to order.
I ordered a glass of 2009 Palazzone Procanico-Drupeggio blend from Umbria ($10). This is a medium-bodied white that works well early in a meal, and was the perfect match for my first course of Sardine ($13), grilled citrus-marinated sardines, onion compote, and bread crumbs. These were terrific sardines, and the only knock I have on the dish is that in retrospect, there were a few too many bread crumbs (read on).
For the next course, I upped the body of the wine to a 2010 Massoni Gavi ($10) from Piemonte, and I was stunned by one of best dishes I’ve had in recent memory. Animelle ($14) is hay-smoked veal sweetbreads, fava beans, black truffle-anchovy dressing, and walnuts. This was a giant mass of sweetbreads, so good that you’d swear they were wrapped in bacon, perfectly cooked, and the type of dish that makes your eyes roll into the back of your head before you fall into a swoon. It was awesome, it was amazing – get this dish.
At this point, I was starting to get full because that sweetbread dish was pretty hearty. Next up was the Scialatielli ($12, half-portion) which is a homemade, worm-like pasta served with little neck clams, parsley, and white wine. In any normal meal, this would be the dish of the night, but this was anything but a normal meal. The bread crumbs made an appearance again, and this is my only teeny-tiny complaint – I didn’t necessarily want to see them in two out of three courses. If you like pasta and clams, tinted green with parsley, and having lots of garlic, then you should chase after this dish.
Next up was a tasting portion of the Moleche ($27 as an entree), seared Maryland soft shell crabs (in my case, half a crab) with English pea puree, pea shoots, and fried lemon. With the Gavi, this was Nirvana – yet another in a string of off-the-chart dishes, the fried lemon adding the X-factor.
Nick was not going to leave any stone unturned. “There are just two more coming,” my bartender said, as I was beginning to crumble. A taste of theÂ Agnello ($28 as an entree) was a duo of Shenandoah Valley Lamb – the first as a loin; the second as a shoulder confit, served with potato eggplant charred and confit, and basil.
Dessert was a fine example of why I’m really glad I let Nick pick for me: Cannoli ($9) was the very last thing I would have ordered here, but it was as good as any cannoli you’ll ever enjoy – an upscale version with a crispy hazelnut shell, chocolate cream, sour cherry sorbet (!), pistachio and ricotta sauce, this was to Cannoli what Ferrari is to sports cars. Get this.
An astounding meal that left me stuffed, poor, and so impressed with Nick Stefanelli and Bibiana that I’ve raised it above Tosca in the Dining Guide, and wonder if my next trip to Adour is going to be a mere formality before I list Bibiana as the best restaurant downtown east of 16th Street. Yes, I had the chef’s best effort, but regardless, this was a fantastic meal start-to-finish which is exceedingly rare regardless of whether or not a diner is “known.”