It's only natural to expect excellency from the team that created Lupa and 'inoteca: Restaurateurs Jason and Joe Denton and chefs Eric Kleinman and Steve Connaughton bring a sure-handed balance to those successful downtown restaurants. So when the group's new restaurant frustrates those high hopes, the disappointment is deeper than it would be otherwise.
Bar Milano is of the new breed of Italian restaurants, places that have a familiarity with a global culinary vernacular, and a light touch in translating concepts and ingredients, such as raw fish and ramps, into Italian. The ambitious menu spans a generous spectrum, from northern Italy's Teutonic roots to a batter-fried rabbit very like one I met in Atlanta.
To start, there's a scallop carpaccio ($14) and a foie-gras terrine ($15), such as might be seen on many menus around town, but there's also more interesting fare: Thin filets of trout are pickled and served cold, with a mild horseradish cream sauce and a ration of tiny multicolored beets ($12). Strong pickling leaves the fish without much richness or subtlety, but the dish is refreshing and bright. A colorful salad of cool cooked asparagus, carrots, beans, and the like is also vivid, doused in anchovy-rich bagna cauda dressing. The word mondeghili means "meatballs" in my lexicon, but here, it's used to refer to another interesting dish in which three fried oysters, hot and juicily marine, are placed alongside stuffed cabbage leaves ($14). The leaves' disappointing filling is a gummy, blandly sweet mush of farro.
A suggested primi middle course of mostly pastas includes an utterly average $18 tagliatelle, plain and chewy pasta ribbons glued together with crumbly, oily, fiercely salted meat ragu; and a more interesting, but no less salty, assemblage of buckwheat pasta pillows ($17). The latter are filled with potato and cabbage, like renegade dumplings from the Ukrainian East Village, and topped with strips of ham. The primi course also offers what is both the best dish and the best deal I found in the restaurant: a heaping portion of super-flavorful, long-braised strips of honeycomb tripe in a thin, peppery tomato gravy, laid on buttery, custardy polenta. The single $12 portion is enough dinner in itself for two people, if there are two offal-lovers at the same table. I did not test the question of how the staff might react to a couple that leaves after sharing just one cheap dish. Better that, I believe, than to eat many dishes, only one of which is worthwhile.
The disappointing secondi includes the aforementioned rabbit ($24), which has a healthy coat of batter, crisp and fluffy and greasy and salty — too salty, especially in contrast with the overly sweet and mild meat. The specimen I tried wasn't quite cooked through, still bloody at the bone, but even before I cut that deep, I had lost interest in the dull dish. A trout fillet ($23) has the opposite problem: The thin sliver of fish is cooked until it's crisp on the outside and drily tough on the inside, so that it flakes of its own accord into its overly rich bed of creamed potatoes and creamed chard.
Four scallops, seared and capped with a few grains of caviar apiece ($25), are under-flavored, and the caviar oddly bitter. A mint-tinged pile of fresh green fava beans is the high point of the dish, springy and simple. Of the dishes I tried, only a roasted duck breast ($29) had truly deep flavor under its fatty skin, which was set off rather neatly by a bed of lentils doused with hyper-tangy rhubarb puree.
The service is highly polished, but so stilted as to verge on the robotic. Hearing one waitress recite the same rote phrases to every customer — at top volume, because the ambient sound level is overwhelming — gives the meal a Stepfordian vibe that is not conducive to relaxation. As the evening advances, after-work drinkers spill from the adjoining bar area into the dining room, preceded by their bellows, which are amplified by the low parabolic ceiling and marble wall.
The proprietors have proven that they're capable of creating an excellent restaurant, so just what's gone wrong at Bar Milano is unclear. Either it will shape up in forthcoming months, or it can be taken as a sign that loud, clumsy, and crowded is just what its creators want Bar Milano to be.
Bar Milano (323 Third Ave. at 24th Street, 212-683-3035).