When having dinner at an Italian restaurant it’s possible that you might be lucky enough to get a whiff of the wonderful aromas coming out of the kitchen—garlic and onions frying in a pan, sweet tomatoes simmering on a stove, and fragrant rosemary in the oven. The other night while Susie, Adrienne and I were having dinner at Bar Milano, the latest project from Joe and Jason Denton (Lupa, ‘inotecca, ‘ino), the usual kitchen aromas were barely perceptible over the more dominant olfactory stimulus of the evening—a sweet, herbaceous air that made my mouth go dry at one sniff. Yes, you guessed it: marijuana. No joke. And we were on 24th and 3rd, not Stanton and Eldridge.
“Do you smell pot?” Adrienne asked as we enjoyed our simple but terrific amuse bouche—sheer slices of tart apple topped with nutty slices of shaved aged grana padano cheese and a sticky drizzle of wonderfully syrupy aged balsamic vinegar. The collective answer from the table: Yes. A glance around the cool, marble-walled Danish modern room, appointed with round wooden tables, gray carpet and walls of glass wine cubbies, a decided departure from the rustic farmhouse chic look of the Dentons’ previous restaurants, revealed not a single rolled joint, pipe or bong. Hmm. We were perplexed. And then, just as quickly as the smell had arrived, it was gone and we were back to eating.
And there’s good eating to be had even with out the appetite aid known as a doobie. And it’s not surprising considering Bar Milano’s kitchen is under the care of two young stars of the Italian kitchen: ‘inotcca’s Eric Kleinman and Lupa’s Steve Connaughton. They’ve created a lovely seasonal menu of antipasti, pasta and secondi that offers generous portions of refined and often scrumptious food. While there’s still some rusticity to the ingredients and simplicity in the preparation—this is Italian after all—the plating and the preparation is more precise and the dishes a bit more high brow than what these chefs have created in the past.
For instance, their riff on their popular signature truffle toast shows up in a clever dish called a Patata Imbottita ($12), a spectacular invention that involves layers of paper thin potatoes shaped into an envelope and wrapped around a runny egg yolk, then pan-fried and plated on top of a Fontina fondue, and topped with caviar. Crispy and buttery on the outside, runny and yolky on the inside, and cheesy at the bottom, it was like the best potato blintz I’ve ever had.
Similarly, the pickled trout is luscious and pristine with just enough pickle and smoke to balance the tart and juicy grapefruit supremes it’s served with ($12). It tastes like it belonged on a Sunday morning smoked fish platter from Russ & Daughters, but looked like it came from the kitchen of Daniel. A salad of Cavolo Nero ($10) was dressed in an excellent tangy Parmesan and sorrel dressing—almost Caesar-like in that it was lemony, pungent and bright- but the kale, which was cut up chiffonade style, was a little unruly and chewy when served raw. I’d have eaten this dressing on anything though, and hope to try to replicate it at home on romaine or perhaps escarole, or as a dipping sauce for crudite.
Grilled octopus ($14) was extremely tender but strangely enough reminded me of chicken wings in its presentation, with its tentacles slathered in a red glaze like that of atomic hot sauce. It was not spicy, instead it was rather tangy and sweet, but for me, the sauce overwhelmed the octopus. It could also be that since I just returned from Greece the idea of octopus served with anything other than olive oil and lemon is just not right.
Pastas, as you might expect, are very good, and the chefs offer an even ten choices, from pinci with cuttlefish and razor clams ($22) to borsetti alla pizzocheri—a potato-filled buckwheat pasta with cabbage and speck ($17). It was tough for us to decide which way to go but we ultimately went with two meat pastas, and were pleased with our choices.
The housemade Tagliatelle alla Bolognese is simple and good: ribbon-like egg noodles cooked to chewy perfection dressed in a surprisingly light but richly flavored Bolognese sauce that made the dish taste almost healthy (emphasis on almost). We also enjoyed the fusilli, a pleasing bowl of dry pasta (also cooked the right amount of time) tossed with hearty hunks of house made pork sausage and creamy borlotti beans ($18). There was such incredible depth of flavor in those beans that Susie could not help but eat them one at a time, remarking about how she could “eat these beans all day.” That might not be the best idea, but hey, they were really good.
Entrees were a hit and a miss. Our salmon ($24) was exquisite—seared beautifully so the skin formed a gorgeous snappy crust almost the texture of a kettle-cooked potato chip capping its rosy pink flesh. It’s plated on a bed of shaved and roasted brussel sprouts, pumpkin seeds and caramelized sections of roasted Delicata squash that make this dish taste like an edible walk through the Greenmarket on a brisk fall day. The veal chop Milanese ($32), while gorgeous to look at—a big boy chop anchored to a beautifully frenched bone that’s breaded and pan-fried- it’s a pretty picture without much going on inside. Yes, it’s wildly juicy and pink but where was the seasoning? The sauce was nice and lemony, but the chop itself was curiously bland.
Occasionally during dinner, the heady marijuana perfume was back, causing all of us in the dining room—a mix of good-looking neighborhood folks and Europeans from the hotel upstairs—to stop mid-bite, look around, chuckle and then get back to their meal. Where was it coming from? Noticing our conversation, a sommelier came over to let us know that they smelled it too and that they suspected it was from a hotel room above the restaurant. She assured us it was not coming from the restaurant. I don’t know if she thought we’d be offended, but in my mind the presence of marijuana in a restaurant does not detract from the enjoyment of a meal so no apologies were needed. I have a feeling that the lively folks in the bar, a sleek, tall-windowed room centered around a communal table where you can enjoy snacks like meats, cheeses, plump risotto balls and fritto misto along with fresh juice cocktails, would not have had a problem with it either.
But sommeliers and a crew of attentive servers, dressed smartly in white shirts, black vests and ties, are very concerned about their guests here. There’s a refined sense of calm and hospitality in the restaurant, and I think the presence of marijuana was not what they felt was appropriate for their guests to be smelling. Fair enough.
After our dinner, it was a bit tough to find room for desserts so we rested for a while and chatted—the election, the bailout (the same conversations that seemed to be happening all over the restaurant)—to make some room. I was glad we did because the desserts were very good, especially a fall squash cake with macerated figs and Parmesan gelato ($10) and the ricotta cheesecake, made with ricotta and goat cheese for a nice little tang, drizzled with butterscotch and showered with pomegranate seeds. I should also mention that the all-Italian wine list is quite extensive (it’s divided by region) and while many bottles top the $90 mark, there are also plenty of choices under $45 like the 2005 Pecchenino, Dolcetto di Dogliani San Luigi that we had for $39.
While we enjoyed our desserts, ultimately we were too full to make much of a dent in them. When owner Joe Denton came to check on us, we offered that with a little help from the marijuana patrons up in the hotel room we might have been able to polish them off. He seemed ready to go and get us some, but we assured him were just kidding. Kind of.
[Bar Milano has been redone and is now 'Inoteca]