February 23, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Delete Bar Milano. Install ‘Inoteca
‘Inoteca fans celebrate in the stripped down Bar Milano. Photo: Steven Richter
The doctors Denton – Jason and brother Joe – have found a sure-fire cure for their ailing Bar Milano on Third Avenue. Delete it. Paste in its place ‘Inoteca, a familiar joint with devoted fans, just right for the times in a zip code where folks were feeling dine-out-deprived even before the Dow went toxic. A cluster of refuseniks huddle outside in an arctic wind. “I’m really sorry. It’s about a 40-minute wait for a table,” the hostess tells a hopeful pair without a reservation. “But don’t forget us. Call and come back.”
Zesty salads are perfect to share; bruschette, alas, are not. Photo: Steven Richter
Really. Sorry… Don’t forget us. The dialogue of a reeling economy. Friendly. Humble. Unimaginable only six months ago. Overheard in what might be one of the hottest scenes of the night. Lucky for us, our friends have reserved and are already seated at a bare wooden round. We were here together when it was Bar Milano and it was cruelly noisy then. It’s noisier now. To mimic the Ludlow Street ‘Inoteca look, the Dentons tore out the carpets and installed 10-inch wooden plank floors, replaced fabric banquettes with seating on a wooden perch that divides the room and even changed the door. “To make it easier to get in,” says Joe Denton. Only the Milanesque multi-hued marble wall remains. “It’s like an art work,” Joe says. “If we tried to take it down, it could have broken. And to cover it with sheetrock… I think I would have cried.”
The noise? Joyful shouts of uninhibited panini fans sipping perfectly drinkable wines from $30 bottles and sharing a creamy eggplant lasagnette for $12. “We suggest that everything is good for the table to share,” our server begins. I object. I don’t think soup or three bruschette divvyed into slop on the plate make for amiable sharing. Indeed, even the mythic truffle egg toast is not nearly as sexy divided in four. And $3 worth of bottarga does nothing as an add-on. Small quibbles aside, our four are right in tune with the noisy congregation.
Chickpeas and sundried tomatoes enliven grilled calamari salad. Photo: Steven Richter
A trio of lively salads makes us feel virtuous to start: Romaine and raddichio, tossed with grana and roasted garlic. Grilled calamari with chickpeas, black olives, and sundried tomatoes, and insalata di verdure di radice, a delicious gathering of root vegetables – parsnip, celery root – and Brussels sprouts leaves on butternut squash rounds with charred raddichio. There are four luscious scallops to a spiedini. Truffle toast and the pressed sandwich of braesola, arugula, grana and lemon oil cut into four delivers savory tang and the night’s ration of salt. Well, that’s the nature of the cured meat and cheese beast, what do you expect?
Everything is priced for the times including tagliatelle with a chunky ragu. Photo: Steven Richter
There is as much comfort in wondrously crusty baked rigatoni with cauliflower ($14) as in my mom’s mac’n’cheese: Crumbs, herbs and cheese gratineed on top and fried capers flitting around. Add that rich lasagnette and a generous portion of tagliatelle with a chunky ragu spooned into two bowls, and even gourmands like us are slowing down.
But our friends, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, have a blog to feed too and must taste dessert – it’s the job, someone’s gotta do it. We debate espresso smothered ice cream, chocolate mousse or Nutella panino. Imagine, desserts start at just $5. Given the choice, I pick the budino of panettone. It seems small: a custard-soaked triangle, good enough for one sweet bite, nothing to shout about.
No matter. We’re already plotting our return. The brothers have wisely given up a Milanese dream for an ‘Inoteca reality. “I wish you’d move one of these into my neighborhood,” I find myself saying.
“Upper West Side.”
“We’ll definitely look into it.”
323 Third Avenue at 24th Street. 212 683 3035. Open seven days from noon to 3 am.
A Mussel Workout on East 82nd Street
Slither inside between booming bar and crowded counter if you can. Photo: Steven Richter
That name, Flex Mussels. My first thought: Are things that bad in California that Arnold Schwarzenegger has opened a restaurant? But then I read on, picked up on the Prince Edward Island provenance and the back story, restaurateur and island hugger Bobby Shapiro’s romance with the mussel. Shapiro is a name I remember from the 80s when Hoexter’s Market and Uzie’s – side by side on the Upper East Side sharing a kitchen – sizzled on the late-night circuit.
Could Prince Edward Island become the next Hampton? Bobby and his wife Laura are ready with two spots for grub there already.
An armory of mussel pots arrive with a geography of saucing. Photo: Steven Richter
What we’re seeing now in Shapiro’s old Zocalo space in that quadrant of the city he knows best is an urbanized summer vacation. Walls paved with views of PEI and upside down mussel pots shading lights at the bar where oyster man John Bil chats and shucks.
I’m off to a grumpy start. With the wall-mounted counter packed with diners and the bar at capacity in a narrow el, there’s really no space to wait – even after all six of us have arrived. Wherever we move we’re blocking the flow. There’s a six-top out back marked with our name but no one willing to vacate it. The bears in our group are getting testy. We’re hitting the brain-set between I’m hungry, I’m entitled and I’m out of here.
A cluster of eaters gather on the “beach” at Flex Mussels. Photo: Steven Richter
And then it’s over. We’re seated at a small bare round, the better, I suppose, to hear ourselves over the din, instantly defanged and amused by the motto on the menu: “Find the shortest, simplest way between Earth, the hands and the mouth.” My life’s précis this past 40 years.
Lobster roll and seafood entrees (from $20 to $32) try to hook us, but wait, aren’t we here for mussels, 23 variations from $16 to $23, definitely the choice for dedicated penny-pinchers.
We’re sharing a delicious fritto misto of calamari, shrimp and oysters. Photo: Steen Richter.
First we’re warming up with starters. Ava and I share “Burnt Fingers” – crispy fried calamari, shrimp and battered oysters with a spicy dipping cream – passing it around. And everyone reciprocates with tastes of unremarkable pepper smoked salmon, perfectly acceptable crab cake and spoonfuls of the amazing chowder of the day – floating mussels, white fish and bacon with touches of sweet red pepper, corn and a swirl of chive oil.
|Marvelous chowder. Photo: Steven Richter.
We’ve studied the 23 options, not to miss a doozy. The list is a roll call of geography and history in bivalves, from the classic with wine and garlic to the Spartan with kalamata olive, the South Pacific with kaffir lime and lemongrass and the Perigord of black truffle and champagne.
Our friend Elisa has a serious mussel tussle. Photo: Steven Richter
The delivery is dramatic: half a dozen huge aluminum stock pots, the covers removed and piled in the center, to collect the shells. Inside I see a mountain of gaping black shells, needing to be pushed aside, to drag sweet perfectly cooked little critters through my chosen Bombay sauce, a puddle spiced with curry, mango puree, cinnamon, star anise and garlic. Ava is upset. Tasting around – the Spanish number with chorizo, the lobster-dotted Bisque, a San Daniele creation with prosciutto and caramelized onion – she likes everyone’s mussels better than her own Negril choice with peppers, jerk spices, lime and beer. But soon she is cooing and slurping and moaning.
“I thought you didn’t like yours,” I ask helping myself to yet another French fry – good but not great. “It took a while,” Ava confesses. “But now I’m totally into it.”
For the full beach shack experience, we decide the Flex donuts are a must, though at four for $9 I consider them priced for the city. I like to end dinner with a hit or three of something sweet. Two lemon cream-filled balls and a pair of salted caramel in sugared dough dipped into vanilla sauce do the trick.
174 East 82nd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. 212 717 7772. Open Monday to Thursday from 5:30 to 11, Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11:30, and Sunday from 5:30 to 10.