While it’s hard to beat the inventiveness and quality of the food in San Francisco, the Bay Area stands far behind New York when it comes to ambience. Restaurants like Lever House, Brasserie and Bar Milano offer patrons a dining experience that goes way beyond the food. Visit any of these places and you’ll find bold, innovative interior designs that are hard to overlook.
Bar Milano, the latest venue by the people who brought you ‘Ino and ‘Inoteca, is a feast for the eyes. In the beautifully designed space, a not so diverse good-looking crowd bring in a lively vibe worthy of a Sex and the city episode.
The bar seats 26 but many more stand for their chance to see and be seen. The ambience is a tasteful mix of an anachronistic Venetian bar (think Harry’s, the official birthplace of the Bellini) with Blade Runner mystique. Warm redwood panels are contrasted with a carefully designed tube light pattern that extends the perception of space beyond the glass walls onto the busy street.
In the 60-people dining room, one wall features a wall to ceiling wine cabinet while the other displays a vertical mosaic of marble panels. Arranged in non-symmetrical stripes of contrasting tones, the marble wall gives the room an original, modern feel. On both ends of the hangar-shaped room, white sheer curtains provide intimacy while increasing the sense of space (behind one curtain is a full-wall mirror).
The tables are made of simple solid wood tops over elegant cast-iron claw feet. Leather-covered molded-plywood chairs and a soft grey banquette offer comfortable seating for all fashion-conscious guests.
The restaurant serves northern Italian fare, à la carte and in an eight-course tasting menu. Despite my strong desire to order the chef’s menu, the individual appetizers, pastas and main courses sounded more interesting.
In many French restaurants, the tasting menu leaves diners completely in the hands of the chef. They are called Menu confiance. No descriptions are provided, every dish is a surprise. In the US, as food intolerances change faster than fashion, descriptions are hardly an option. Point is, if you describe it, better make it appetizing. Bar Milano follows the trend that perhaps less explanation yields more surprise. Ingredients are listed with no romance, just the facts. Like a drug label, alerting patients for possible allergies. Hardly appetizing.
Dinner started with a selection of breads. Overall, they were tasty but felt somewhat old in texture. A day old perhaps.
Among the appetizers, one of the most intriguing is the Timballo di Quaglia –Quail, Foie Gras. That’s what I ordered. The dish came to the table almost too quickly. And despite the bland description, the plate included a complex presentation of ingredients that our waitress didn’t seem to deem worthy of an explanation. When I asked her what I was eating, she described it in great detail, somewhat surprised and proud, as if I was the first person to ever ask. Maybe I was.
So this is how it goes. The quail meat is cooked, pureed then molded as a cylinder. Its center is then removed to give place to the foie gras. After chilled, the timbale is sliced and served with three compotes. Grapefruit, rose petails and pink peppercorns; black cherry and vinegar; and caramelized shallots. Unfortunately, the dish didn’t quite live up to its long explanation. The quail had an unpleasant grainy texture that overshadowed its bland taste. And even with the good compotes, the grilled slices of panini that accompanied the dish were way too hard.
I shared an order of the Cuscini all’ Osso Buco – Braised Veal Stuffed Pasta. This is a good dish, simple and tasty. The pasta is served al dente with a flavorful veal reduction sauce and dusted with crunchy breadcrumbs.
As a main course, I ordered the Anatra con Lenticchie – Duck Breast, Duck Sansage, Rhubarb, Lentils. When the dish arrived, I noticed the meat looked unusually red. But in good faith, I tried it. Indeed, my suspicion was right. I called the waitress and asked her if that was how the chef wanted the meat prepared. “Yes, medium rare”, she replied. It tasted pretty rare to me but I told her that I would eat it that way. Truth is, the duck was undercooked. To the point of tasting raw – which unlike fish and beef, doesn’t taste good in poultry. The sausage that came with it was soft and bland; everything else was good at best.
I also tried the Tonno e Vitello – Grilled Tuna, Veal Breast, Artichokes. A strange combination that, unlike the classic Italian dish Pollo al tono, doesn’t quite work as well. Moreover, the tuna and the artichokes were tougher than I’d expect.
Dessert to the rescue. There’s a good selection of appetizing desserts on the menu. I ordered the Stracciatella Parfait – Chocolate Ganache, Goat’s Milk, Chocolate Cones. The also mysteriously described dessert was actually very good. The rich ganache was sandwiched between thin layers of good quality chocolate and the goat milk was actually goat milk ice cream (but someone probably thought it was clever to omit that from the description).
Something worth noting is the restaurant’s sparkling water. In the era of $14 bottles of water, Bar Milano carbonates their own and serve it in glass pitchers for the surprisingly low cost of two bucks.
Bar Milano’s beautiful ambiance is another example of a modern, innovative New York restaurant design. Crowded with beautiful people, some say this is the place to be. But if dining well is what you have in mind, this may not be where you’ll want to eat. In the place to see and be seen, it’s no wonder few eyes are on the food.
Bar Milano is at 323 Third Avenue, NYC