Editor's note: For the next few weeks, Nick Solares, already known here for his burger reporting, will be filling in for Ed on Tuesday nights with a New York City restaurant review. Take it away, Nick!
323 Third Avenue, New York NY 10010 (at 24th Street; map); 212-683-3035; inotecanyc.com
Service: Mostly attentive but can be slow when busy
Setting: Casual mood and menu selection slightly at odds with sleek decor held over from Bar Milano. Rustic touches do not quite mute the visual austerity of the modern room
Compare to: Bar Stuzzichini, I Trulli Ristorante/Enoteca, Terroir
Must Haves: Imported cheeses and charcuterie, panini, and olive oil pound cake
Cost: Antipasti $7 to $14, panino $11 to $18, pasta $12 to $16
When Bar Milano opened early last year, the writing was not yet on the wall. The impending financial meltdown was nowhere in sight and brothers Jason and Joe Denton, longtime proprietors of 'ino in the West Village and the more ambitious 'inoteca on the Lower East Side made the move uptown—both proverbially and geographically—with their decidedly more upscale Bar Milano.
It was an attempt at a serious restaurant and indeed garnered a respectable two stars from the New York Times. The economic downturn apparently made the high-minded concept unsustainable in an area mostly populated by bar and grills and other more affordable eateries. And so, returning to their roots, the Dentons along with chef Eric Kleinmen transformed Bar Milano into a still more ambitious version of the downtown 'inoteca appending "Vino, cucina e liquori bar" to the restaurants title and expanding the wine list, adding cocktails and pasta to the menu.
The serious culinary intent of Bar Milano necessitated an equally serious decor—the bar was decked out in dark woods, the main dining room had a monolithic marble wall and sleek modern furniture. While the restaurant has not been completely overhauled (rustic touches have been added to soften the visual austerity of the modern room, the tables and chairs replaced with more agrarian ones) it's somewhat at odds with the restaurant's casual mood.
Things will get off to a good start if you begin with a selection of meats from the Affettati section of the menu and combine them with some of the copious offerings on the separate cheese list.
The panino are also easy to recommend. They posses the requisite crispy crust and are layered with quality ingredients. Try the prosciutto and mozzarella slathered in arugula pesto or the tangy fontina, spinach and mushroom variety—it's perfumed with truffle oil, you won't be disappointed. Nor will you be upset by the truffle-infused egg toast. The other bruschette were less rewarding. The thick, soft bread did not provide enough of a textural contrast to either the ricotta or the fennel and cauliflower tapenades.
An under-seasoned beet salad narrowly missed the mark. The orange added a pleasant tartness and the hazelnuts, a needed textural contrast, but the pecorino cheese was overwhelmed by the beets rendering the dish too sweet.
Pasta was always the Achilles' heel of Bar Milano and unfortunately the ones at 'inoteca continue the ignoble tradition. The tonnarelli with veal ragu in a white sauce was stogy and lacked viscosity (the pasta was rather waxy). Even a simple spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and tomato failed to please, the under-seasoned sauce unable to balance the dense pasta.
More successful was the tender chicken cacciatore that comes on a skewer, blanketed in a velvety tomato and mushroom sauce. If only the pastas were this well sauced!
The mozzarella in carrozza (literally "in carriage") came stuffed with a salty anchovy paste, the milky cheese pleasingly molten but the deep-fried bread was far too greasy, evoking shrimp toast from a generic Chinese-American menu.
The mascarpone and spiced clementine-topped pound cake drizzled in olive oil and dusted with pepper made for an enjoyable conclusion.
'inoteca's finer qualities—the beverages, panino, cheese, and charcuterie—don't necessarily provide you with a full-meal experience but a perfect backdrop to an enjoyable evening with friends, which seems to be the point of 'inoteca. Plied with wines or an inventive cocktail from the voluminous drinks menu, you will be surrounded by smiling people and leave contented. Stick to the simpler menu items here and you can’t go wrong.
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