We’re very proud to share the Chicago Tribune’s review of Baffo inside Eataly Chicago!
By Phil Vettel
“Baffo is a love-it-or-hate-it restaurant. It’s easy to dismiss a formal Italian dining room offering mid-$20s pastas, mid-$30s entrees (topped by a $48 veal dish), $15 cocktails and wines by the glass in the $20s.
But it’s also tough to hate a dining room with subdued light and noise levels (you remember those, right?), generously sized and spaced tables and a front desk that steadfastly refuses to overcrowd its 50-seat capacity. (I walked into a half-empty dining room and was directed, apologetically, to the bar, because parties with reservations were due to arrive.)
It doesn’t hurt one bit that the food is executed at the same high level as the prices.
Baffo is the street-level, reservations-recommended restaurant within the vast Eataly complex, accessible from Eataly itself or its own entrance on Grand Avenue. Baffo is a sister restaurant to Babbo, Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant in New York City. Baffo is Italian for “mustache,” a nod to Eataly founder/owner Oscar Farinetti, who sports a particularly luxuriant ‘stache, and that’s echoed in the luxurious menu executed by chef de cuisine David Yusefzadeh, who has been with Baffo (originally as sous chef) since its December 2013 debut.
The menu unfolds to reveal four pages; a la carte choices are divided among the usual antipasti, primi and secondi headings, and there’s also a six-course tasting menu ($95). That last page is worth your attention, because tasting menu items can be ordered individually, and, not surprisingly, there are some gems to be found, including an impressive, two-bird stack of roasted and lacquered quail perched on a bed of braised turnips.
For a time, there also was an all-pasta tasting (four courses, $65); it’s no longer a menu feature, but it’s available by request. Indeed, one can request just about anything of this flexible, eager-to-please kitchen. About a month ago, one of my dining companions was in the midst of a pre-holiday vegan cleanse (don’t ask). Her intention was to join us just for a drink, but when we mentioned her predicament (pasta-rich restaurants are not ideal no-egg, no-cream, no-cheese destinations), our server went back for a quick chef consultation and returned with a half-dozen dishes the kitchen would be willing to create or adapt.
Your meal will start with an amuse, a crunchy bite mounted on a toothpick. For a while, Yusefzadeh sent out frittellas of smoked trout with lemon-chive aioli, but lately it has been a croquette filled with liquefied cauliflower, dabbed with salsa rosso. Rustic, crusty bread and good olive oil follow. Among the opening courses, I’d start with the wine-braised octopus, a Batali classic. Served in cigar-length pieces over marinated borlotti beans and pancetta, finished with a splash of limoncello vinaigrette, this is perhaps the most-tender octopus I’ve ever tasted. Overlapping slices of veal tongue topped with a slightly spicy giardiniera are another textural success, and the current iteration of fegato grasso (foie gras) surrounds the liver with pomegranate syrup and seeds and crowns it with a jumble of celery ribbons, certainly an elegant way to incorporate lean and savory notes to the dish.
Picking a favorite pasta is difficult, as I loved everything I tried, even the garganelli pasta that had been altered to suit my vegan-ish companion. I particularly enjoyed the orecchiette, with its umamilike blend of lamb sausage and broccoli rabe, and the decadently rich goat-cheese tortelloni flecked with orange zest and fennel pollen.
Fish is a strength; a highlight of my early visits was roasted turbot with fregola and pickled chilies; this has been replaced with a thick slab of steelhead trout, its skin aggressively seared to an ideal crispness while keeping the flesh medium-rare. Scallops, in a colorful presentation that includes sea urchin, chanterelle mushrooms and sunchoke puree, are beyond reproach. On the meaty side, veal loin justifies its steep price tag with flawless meat topped with a quenelle of foie gras butter (foie mixed with Italian butter) and surrounded by chanterelle mushrooms and truffled celery root. Beef short rib, arranged over parsnip puree with a hint of horseradish, is warm comfort on a winter evening.
Desserts don’t wow me like the savory creations, but they’re all well made. The cioccolata is an indulgent mix of chocolate spongecake, ganache and hazelnut gelato, the millefoglie consist of crisped puff pastry layered with sweet vanilla cream, alongside sticky squares of toasted white chocolate.
The front-of-house staff is terrific. I expect personable and knowledgeable waiters, but the busers are extremely sharp as well. And I love places where you can eat at the bar (as I did here once) and find the bartender knows the menu inside out as well.
The dining room is all low-key sophistication; linen-draped tables are matched to white leather-wrapped chair and/or chocolate-toned, pebbled-leather banquettes. Floors are black and white tile, support columns are clad in dark wood. Lighting is muted and indirect; background music is nearly indiscernible. It strikes me as a place that diners of a certain age would love, but Baffo’s clientele defies age generalization; last time I visited, I spotted two older couples, some parties I’d place in their 30s and a quartet of women celebrating a birthday I haven’t seen in 25 years. Maybe, sigh, longer.”
STARS (3 out of 4) ★ ★ ★
(via Chicago Tribune)