Bufala Break: A Bite at Obika on Madison Avenue
The setting may strike you as strange -- nobody would expect to find a chic establishment in the IBM building's public atrium. Well, you'll have to suspend disbelief for a moment, because the bufala that awaits you is worth it. Popular with the local business crowd because it's easy to get in and out while still indulging, managing partner Anthony tells me that he sees plenty of visitors to New York come through.
Gallery: Obika: Mozzarella Bar in Manhattan
In fact, this experience is what makes Obika different from the other dining options in the area. The 33-seat establishment is something more than a kiosk and less than a full-service restaurant, a concept that Fauci calls "fast casual." The space is cordoned off logically from the rest of the atrium, allowing you to sit down for a great, quick meal apart from the rest of the public traffic.
The rather extensive menu, given the concept, is packed with bufala, and you can have several types, along with a variety of Italian meats: my favorite combo is Paestum with prosciutto. Additionally, you can order pasta dishes such as lasagna (suggests Fauci). Though you can't pick up a glass of wine to sip with your meal yet, Fauci says that Obika did apply for a liquor license recently. He explains, "We'll be serving a variety of Italian wines selected to match the menu."
Regardless of what you order, Fauci explains, his fanaticism about sourcing ensures you'll be happy with what you cram into your mouth (well, if you eat the way I do). His bufala, for example, is flown in three times a week. For other ingredients, he's found a variety of small, local suppliers - which contributes to the unique experience. Most of the dishes aren't difficult to prepare - by design. Fauci refers the "non-chef-driven kitchen" approach, as it highlights the quality of the ingredients without requiring extensive preparation.
Given the importance of the "raw material" that goes into an Obika dish, sourcing is crucial, Fauci tells me. With little preparation needed, the quality of the bufala, pasta and meats become even more noticeable, leaving little room for error. As the first Obika in North America, Fauci's restaurant hasn't been able to benefit from existing supplier relationships in Europe, making his job a bit tougher.
"Most of the other Obika locations," Fauci says, "are in Europe, making it easier for them to access the ingredients they need and are expected to use." An ocean away, he's had to do more digging to identify exactly what he wants (and needs) to deliver an upscale experience in the space he has chosen. It pays off, however, as you'll notice from the dishes placed before you - even ahead of the first bite.
Especially with the bufala and meat tastings, arrive hungry. The portions may not look substantial, but you'll quickly find yourself full (as I did, which doesn't happen easily). I shared a tasting of each with fellow travel blogger Laurie DePrete, and neither of us was able to finish it all. When this happens, don't be a hero! You'll risk being too full to hit the dessert menu, which would be a tragic mistake. My favorite is the ricotta mousse with honey, orange peel and pine nuts: dense and delicious. Pair it with an espresso and let your meal settle for a while. Like swimming, shopping shouldn't be resumed until 20 minutes after eating.
A jaunt up Madison Ave shouldn't leave you dining and dashing at the usual chains and stands. Grab a bite Obika to stay on your intended shopping path, and you'll have the right pairing for your Manhattan excursion.
Disclosure: Obika did pick up the tab for my meal, over my objections. I had decided to write the story already and intended to pay for it myself. My objectivity was not impaired.