Note: You can probably guess what rating Bar Milano got from Italian-loving Frankie two-stars, despite “bungled pastas.” The rest of the dining community, including us, had a more muted response. Bar Milano closed at the end of 2008 and has re-opened as a clone of the same owners’ more casual place on the Lower East Side, ’inoteca. That spot closed in September 2012.
There’s no shortage of great Italian restaurants in New York, so it’s tough for a new one to command attention. So far, Bar Milano is off to a great start. In the first six weeks, reservations have generally been tough to come by.
It helps to have Jason Denton running the show. With four previous establishments (’Ino, ’Inoteca, Lupa, Otto), he has shown a knack for the kind of stylish-yet-casual restaurant that feels like a neighborhood place, but has the following of a dining destination. It’s something that many restauranteurs aspire to, but that Denton seems invariably to get right. Joining him here are brother Joe Denton (’Ino, ’Inoteca) and chefs he lured from two of those restaurants, Eric Kleinman (’Inoteca) and Steve Connaughton (Lupa).
A name like “Bar ______” can mean almost anything these days (just like “Bistro” or “Brasserie”). This is the fifth Bar Something-or-other that I’ve reviewed this year, and they have little in common. I’m not sure it has much to do with “Milano,” either. The cuisine is allegedly Northern Italian, but only in the loosest sense.
There is indeed a lovely bar here, and the house cocktails are worth a look. From a set called “Lost & Somewhat Forgotten” I had a Rattlesnake ($13), with Rittenhouse rye, Pernod, lemon juice, powdered sugar and egg white. The bar tab was transferred to my table without complaint, which ought to happen all the time, but often doesn’t.
There are 20 American whiskies available for a classic Manhattan cocktail, or 10 gins for a classic Martini. The menu offers no suggestions for any of the 9 vodkas.
The dinner menu is somewhat pricey for this patch of Third Avenue. Success will depend on attracting a destination crowd, as the Dentons have historically done at their lower priced restaurants. Antipasti here are $10–15, primi $9–24, and secondi $20–43 (but most under $30). An eight-course tasting menu looks like it’s a bargain at $85.
Bread service is a bit spartan, with two people asked to share a single slender bread stick, a small slice of bread and an equally puny dinner roll.
Left: Tajarin con Porri Selvatici; Right: Agnolotti di Gamberi
We had mixed reactions to our pasta starters. Tajarin con Porri Selvatici ($17), or pasta with ramps and bread crumbs, had a nice crunchy texture. I liked the way the ramps were integrated into the dish, instead of being just seasonal add-ons used mostly for show.
But Agnolotti di Gamberi ($18), or shrimp-filled pasta with peas and mint, was not nearly as appetizing, with the taste of peas being far too dominant.
Left: Costolette di Maiele (pork chop); Right: Cotoletta alla Milanese (veal chop)
A pork chop ($26) and a veal chop ($32) were both expertly done, though if I’d stumbled on either preparation in another restaurant, I wouldn’t have associated them with Italy. The pork chop lay on a bed of escarole and was topped with a mustard fruit somewhat redolent of applesauce; the veal chop had a light, delecate bread crumb crust.
The meal ended with a couple of small petits-fours that seemed, like the bread service to start with, a little skimpy.
Service was polished and attentive, but this was the Friday evening before Memorial Day, and the dining room was clearly less busy than it would ordinarily be.
The Dentons told W Magazine that they envisioned Bar Milano as “a fun three-star place.” Bar Milano is fun, but it isn’t three stars. The food here is generally solid, but there are some soft spots on the menu, and there isn’t enough Milano in it. Like their other restaurants, it is a slightly over-achieving neighborhood place.
Bar Milano (323 Third Avenue at 24th Street, Gramercy)