April 21, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

The Neighborhood Goes Gaga Over Bar Milano

        A rainbow of marbles, brass and ambition at Bar Milano. Photo: Steven Richter
A rainbow of marbles, brass and ambition at Bar Milano. Photo: Steven Richter

        Bar Milano with its $22 pinci pasta and luminiscent rainbow marble walls is a far cry from $3 panini at ‘ino where the Denton brothers, Jason and Joe, first dipped into the feeding game. But we all have to grow up, I guess.  Given that Jason Denton teethed at Po with Mario Batali and went on to partner at Lupa and Otto, while drawing crowds to ‘inoteca on Ludlow with brother Joe, it might have seemed the moment for some upscale sophistication.  Diehard penny pincher and Lupa fan that I am, I can’t help feeling I’ve landed in outer space at Bar Milano. The prices: Pastas $17 to $24; secondi as high as $43.  We’re not in panini-land anymore Toto.

        Apparently I missed the blog buzz and Joe’s unabashed vision of “a fun three-star space.” Sure enough, the glowing canteen stands out on the avenue, an oasis from all night markets and slice shops.  It’s not even obvious that the hopped up crowd in the bar and the charcoal grey-swathed banquette we’re parked at has actually moved into the Marcel Hotel.  But breakfast and room service too is part of the deal.  Our pals from Murray Hill haven’t been this excited since Artisanal arrived on 32nd Street. “It’s happening at last we thought,” Karen says,  but all that happened was Wild Salmon.  And it soon swam away. 

Pici pasta with seafood charms the Road Food Warrior. Photo: Steven Richter. 

        As soon as the house’s welcome offering arrives -- a stunning salad of anorexically thin porcini slices with pickled ramps and aged parmesan – I’ve adjusted my brain. Expectations deleted, I’m open to splurge.  And the carpaccio of scallops -- thin as silk, almost macerated in the slicing I can’t help notice, spars above its slightly dedraggled state, a triumph of texture and a concerto of flavors – sweet, briny, salty, deliriously citric. Beside me the Road Food Warrior, normally dignified and contained in his great tasting moments, is actually moaning over his handmade pici noodles (pinci in a northern dialect) laced with cuttlefish and razor clams, sparingly sauced in the Italian way, full of flavors: lemon, garlic, white wine, chili flakes, fennel fronds and cherry tomatoes melted in the cooking and is this the best cauliflower soup we’ve ever tasted? Karen and Andrew think so.  It’s creamy but  intense cauliflower essence comes through.

A perfection of squab -- luscious bird, savory sausage. Photo Steven Richter

        The menu is full of combinations and words I can only guess at – osso buco stuffed cuscini, (Lombardi slang for pasta dumplings) concesi (another pasta package, this one ricotta and chard filled), tajarin (thinnest-cut tagliatelle-like noodle found in the Langhe, here tossed with radicchio and arugula). A few familiar concepts are surprising too. The bagna cauda I order for the table, thinking the four of us will share crudités to dip into anchovy-steeped olive oil, arrives as a luscious salad of chopped vegetables -- carrot, radish, asparagus, brussel sprouts -- tossed with a bagna cauda dressing.  Poised for a discovery, I am dashed to find I actually hate borsetti alla pizzocheri –  pinched little purses made with buckwheat flour and filled with potato, cabbage, speck and a hint of caraway.  Indeed, no one at the table will eat them. Our otherwise well-prepped server who can’t keep herself from asking how we like everything again and again, recoils at my response: “I’d rather not say.” Alas, grilled tuna with sweetbreads that follows is not a successful play on vitello tonnato.

        And now I find myself hungry. I taste Karen’s sensational little package of  mashed potato  wrapped around a
 Bagna Cauda salad. Photo: Steven Richter
perfect poached egg ready to run, with fontina and a bit of “caviar,” a starter she’s eating as an entrée.  If Cate Blanchette were a potato knish this is the aristocratic knish she would be. “Shouldn’t we get another one. That was so small,” I lament.

        But a slice of splendid rare squab and a piece of fatty little squab sausage helps me over the crisis as does the remarkable red wine I picked by accident. Not recognizing any of the reds by the glass, I toss a dart, liking the sound and price ($10) of the Teroldego Rotaliano from the north – big and rich and smooth (like the man your mother told you to marry).

        Bar Milano has been packed since it opened. The kitchen, on duty from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m., is still shaking down. Chef Steven Connaugton from Lupa and Eric Kleinman of  ‘inoteca, who toured Piedmont and Milano with Jason Denton, eating three or four times a day, still need to see what will work. Someone at the range has a knack, enough to bring me back. The nighttime crawlers that go wild for tasting-size plates might not find some of these portions as meager as I do. Especially after an exotic cocktail or two. 

323 Third Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets. 212 683 3035.  


Cherry blossoms and cozy earth tones signal the season at Park Avenue Spring. Photo: Steven Richter.

Park Avenue Spring: How Green Is My Garlic

        A friend complains to me that he didn’t get to Park Avenue Winter until the very last day and the kitchen was out of whatever he ordered..

        Well that’s the way it is. Spring waits for no man now that so many restaurants are playing the market game. If you plan to do a full seasonal molting in a day and a half as Michael Stillman must at what used to be Park Avenue Café, you can’t have a lot of winter leftovers. The tulips may shrivel in an unexpected chill but the design genies from AvRoKo will be there, peeling winter off the walls and velcroing on spring.  And we think it’s a drag to do the closets and the mothballs.  

Peas in the pod, of course, and wonderful bread are what we expect here. Photo: Steven Richter

        So it’s spring…actually a subtle, rather early blossoming at Park Avenue Spring. I loved summer, the beachy look of it and chef  Craig Koketsu’s sunny dishes. By winter the conceit had lost some energy and I felt chilled sitting in a stark white ice palace. The fixtures overhead now have an earthy warm glow. Cherry blossoms divide the room, Easter egg orchid is a color theme. And of course there will be peas, asparagus and with a certain wit: eggs. 

        You can hardly miss with eggs these days since we are all making up for the cholesterol years when we were shamed into giving them up.  We have quail eggs with proscuitto and halibut (slightly overcooked) tattooed with three teeny circlets of black truffle, perched on a poached egg. A side of paremsan risotto with a sunny side up egg could be dinner for me. Warm strawberry and violet meringue pie fits the theme, and it goes without saying, there is always Lipitor, a balm that spans the seasons.

        Thai minestrone with spring vegetables, intense lemongrass tang and a few little tapioca balls is the best of our starters. Not that there’s anything not to like about a perfectly fine crab cake. But crab cake with strawberry in avocado
 Soft shell crab, spring greenery. Photo: Steven Richter
puree is sheer laziness. I think the chef should try harder to astonish.  Sweet pea salad in lovely toss of greenery on cloying carrot purée comes with a wildly oversalted soft shell crab.  And seared squid ink pappardelle may have run into a wall on the way from the kitchen – the noodles are glued together, although the dish itself with clams mussels, calamari and chorizo is a winner. As always the kitchen does well with a veal chop, tonight carpeted with green garlic bread crumbs. Lamb signals spring too: spiced seared lamb loin with chickpeas and green peas and luscious grilled lamb chops under pungent mint leaves. Why do apricots suddenly go with lamb here and at Adour? If you can figure it out, let me know.

        For years pastry master Richard Leach has been setting the mark in desserts.  This spring he seems exhausted by winter. He owes something more to the glory of rhubarb than this panna cotta and a little cheese fritter. The spicy pineapple tart is wimpy too – a melting disc of ice is not enough to charm Mother Nature, though I do like the caramelized banana parfait.  And I can’t help feeling bruised at the bill -- $100 per person for a  somewhat flawed dinner.

               100 East 63rd Street.  212 644 1900.


Junior Eats Out

        Discovering a special menu for children as well as for babes-in-strollers at Fig & Olive last week prompted me to ask if other restaurants cater to the carriage trade.  David Alper, father of “a picky eight-year-old”, sends recommendations.

1. Pastis - we order a bowl of plain pasta  the moment we sit down and it comes drenched in their butter – It’s hard for mom and dad to keep their hands off!

2. I dig bringing my son to JG Melon, just like my dad brought me when I was growing up. The tumult is somewhat soothing when a hungry 8 year old is in tow.

3. Bubby's - I know this is a no-brainer

4. Blue Smoke - BIG FAVE!! Upon being seated, an uncooked cookie shaped like a pig is put in front of your child to decorate and out it comes baked for his dessert.

5. Shun Lee Café - Great food and surroundings to match. The wandering dim sum servers are a fun distraction and the lemon chicken offering is almost as addictive as your weekly column.

6. Patsy's Pizza - Duh.

7. Il Vagabondo - not only the best chicken parm in the city, our 8 yEar-old counts the days until he can be allowed onto the bocce ball court.

8. Serendipity- As my wife likes to say: daddy enjoys this place more than junior!

9. EJ's Luncheonette - generic

10. Tatany- He’s not a huge sushi fan, but he likes the hot towel and ramen noodles!


Patina Restaurant Group