Dining Out With Moira Hodgson

After Several Tough-to-Follow Acts,

Waxman’s Back on the Grill

Chefs are like jack-in-the-boxes: One moment they’re here, then they’re gone, only to reappear somewhere completely unexpected a few months later. Such is the case with California celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman.

Two years ago, after a prolonged absence from New York, Mr. Waxman made a dramatic return to the city with the opening of Washington Park on Fifth Avenue in the Village. The chef who introduced California cuisine to the Upper East Side in the 80’s was back again behind the wood-burning grill, turning out wonderful food to rave reviews. Yet one morning in December, I walked past the restaurant and saw, to my astonishment, that the windows were covered up with brown paper. Overnight, it seems, it had closed.

Now Mr. Waxman has popped up again, this time in the meatpacking district. He’s cooking Italian at Barbuto, a trattoria he’s opened with photographer-designer Fabrizio Ferri. (It’s called “barbuto” because both men are bearded-sporting that trendy day-old stubble, of course). Unlike Washington Park, which was expensive, there’s no dish over $20 on the menu, which changes daily. In a couple of weeks they will also be serving pizza.

The restaurant takes up a street-level corner of Mr. Ferri’s vast two-story complex of photography and design studios known as Industria. Previously, the space was used for catering meals and providing coffee and sandwiches to people working in the studios. Now, the smell of charcoal from a wood-burning grill and oven ( de rigueur for Mr. Waxman) fills the air. A troupe of lanky models, six feet tall with rivers of blond hair and perfectly fitting leather pants, drops down after a shoot to mingle with artists from Chelsea and people from the neighborhood. The mood is friendly and laid-back; Barbuto is the sort of place where, after a few glasses of wine, you might find yourself making friends with strangers at the next table.

The cheerful L-shaped space has an industrial look: poured concrete floors, pale yellow brick walls, a long bar, and chrome and glass garage-like doors on three sides that can be rolled back up to the ceiling on warm days. Plain mahogany tables are set with white plates, gingham napkins and votive candles, and the cheery wait staff wear butcher’s aprons.

I got my first taste of spring on a recent evening when I started off my meal with shad roe. Growing up in England, we used to have it with bacon-for breakfast, no less. It was not the sort of dish I’d expect to find in an Italian trattoria, although Mr. Waxman says that while it’s not very common, they do have shad in Italy. He prepares it alla Milanese: tossed in egg and bread crumbs, sautéed in olive oil and served with fried sage, capers and black butter. It is unforgettable-I’ve never had better, and I urge you to run over there and order some before the season’s over.

Mr. Waxman (along with his executive chef, Lynn Meneely) also prepares terrific, unusual salads, which change daily. Bitter greens come with anchovy and egg; red dandelion leaves are served with halved radishes (which look like new potatoes) and are topped with aged ricotta or a couple of breaded, grilled sardines; and tender pieces of lightly sautéed squid are tossed with aioli, frisée, radicchio and chickpeas, then sprinkled with sea salt and bread crumbs for texture.

There are usually three or four pasta dishes on the menu. White polenta, which also comes as a side dish, is beautifully light and creamy, better without the underseasoned mushrooms that were served on top as a first course one day. Ceppo, a short rolled pasta mixed with ricotta and greens, was also rather bland. But the risotto was extraordinary: perfect al dente, creamy grains cooked with chewy nuggets of rendered pancetta and onions.

Mr. Waxman has always been famous for a dish that, for me, is the real test of a restaurant’s kitchen: roast chicken. Such is its reputation that a friend of mine, meeting me for a late drink at Washington Park one night, insisted on ordering it, even though she’d just come from a benefit dinner where they-of course-served chicken. “I just want to see if it’s as good as I remember from years ago,” she said. It was, and still is at Barbuto. Mr. Waxman uses a bird the size of a capon and has it air-dried so that the skin (which is rubbed with herbs) gets crisp when it’s roasted; it’s like crackling, and the meat is moist and juicy underneath.

It’s a better choice than the braised pork ribs, which were rather dry, or the soggy roast duck. But the rustic lamb stew, topped with grated grana padano, is excellent, made with the legs and shoulder, which have been marinated in herbs and olive oil, seared on the wood-burning grill and braised in red wine. The stew comes with spring onions cooked with their roots on-of all things!-which gave them an appealing crunchiness.

Rib eye also gets an original twist, topped with sliced Hungarian “red hots”: a fresh marinated pepper tossed in olive oil with garlic and spread over the steak. Order a side dish of roasted cauliflower or broccoli rabe to go with it, and what more could you want? For dessert, there’s a sublime lemon pound cake made with almond paste and coated with a lemony syrup, and a rich, dense chocolate pudding served in an espresso cup.

Barbuto has a selection of nearly 100 wines, most of them Italian and reasonably priced. Before you know it, spring will be here in earnest, and you’ll be able to eat that shad roe out on the sidewalk along with a nice glass of chilled verdicchio.