October 29, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Il Mulino Chews Up the Scenery


Waiters scurry to cover the table in the classic Il Mulino freebies.  
Waiters scurry to cover the table in the classic Il Mulino freebies.


          Of course I was curious to taste how Il Mulino would translate to midtown.  The battering-of-war stories had kept me away from the famously sadistic den in its longtime Village station, even though my most recent visit had been remarkably charmed.


The room is white and bright with a thrown together air. Garlic is what counts not architecture.


          I had dared to risk the claustrophobic drill with a favorite man-about-town, Steven Greenberg, celebrated by restaurateurs for his wanton ways with cash and his Chateau Petrus habit. It was December 5, 1996. We were four that evening, crammed into the tiny space at the bar with lesser citizens all waiting for the second seating. For Mr. G., though, the house sent wine. At last, a table cleared. It was ours of course.


Now hear this. Waiters get the word, then have a way of disappearing. 


          Claudio, our captain in a white tie, did handstands. Dishes hit the table in the celebrated forkplay designed to make you forget the torture of waiting even as napkins were flung onto laps. One is not allowed to inhale or survey the scene. Napkins are thrown onto knees as you pull up your chair.


          There was devilish Sopressata sausage, of course, fluttery fried zucchini thins in a big puddle of garlicky oil, oily parmesan toasts, bruschetta, two mussels mating. Tranquillized by garlic and grease, I quickly forgave the prerequisite crowding of bodies in limbo.


The demanding customer is always right tonight at Il Mulino.


          “Where’s the cheese?” Steven cried. Instantly, the big wheel approached and huge chunks were doled out for the table. The captain’s hand shook ever so slightly as he decanted the pricey Gaja Rennina Brunello ’90 into a water pitcher for the pasha’s approval.


          “The penne arrabiata was thrillingly al dente, brilliantly peppery” apparently. Or so I wrote in “That’s Italian, Part 2.” We didn’t need the gnocchi but Greenberg insisted we sample everything. The chicken parmesan was as big as a bathmat. A whole side of animal has been sacrificed for the night’s special lamb chops. Eight chops, exquisitely rare, presented on the platter.


No need to even look at the menu, your waiter can recite all the favorites.


          No wonder, freshly reviving these old memories, I am excited to check out Il Mulino’s new beachhead, open at last in early October. It seems even smaller than the original, very bright and instantly besieged by “Mulinophants,” already impossible to get in. Never fear, my friend Lilliane, also a favorite of maître d’s around, has a contact.  “A friend took me to dinner just last night. The food was wonderful. I sat next to Ronald Perelman. She introduced me to Rubi. I’ll call him.”


Must be a familiar Mulinophant over there getting manager Rubi’s ear.


          So we’re in.  The catch is we must be there at an early bird 6:30. “At least we’ll be home in time for the debate,” I comfort myself. At the door Rubi puts out his hand. Lilliane shakes it and the $20 in her palm disappears.


          “I never did that before,” she cries. “Probably, it wasn’t enough.”


Eighteen dollars worth of precisely cooked asparagus wears a scarf of grated egg yolk.


          The crowd tonight reeks of Eau de Entitlement. Even before sitting down, elderly geezers slip out of their jackets, revealing coral cashmere crewnecks. Passersby hug and graze cheeks along the trail to their tables. Some women are clearly first wives.  Some could be daughters or recent acquisitions on the martial exchange policy.


          Il Mulino midtown doesn’t carry Lilliane’s preferred gin, but she graciously accepts a $16 Bombay Sapphire on the rocks when it eventually, finally, finds our table. The waiters here are tireless, way ahead of the bartender. At the drop of a greasy focaccia they will recite the entire menu so you don’t have to put on your reading glasses and maybe you’ll eat and turn over your table faster.  Only alas, tonight the kitchen is not cooperating.  It’s slow and confused. The waiters run. The kitchen creeps. For some reason dirty pans and garbage crisscrosses the room, adding reality to the floor show.


Baked clams are whole and fresh under the heavy duty crumble.


          Dry crumbles blanket  my vongole oreganata, but I don’t mind. As I have said, I’m a crumble fan. Lilliane insists I share her impeccably cooked asparagus. There is a long pause once we persuade the waiter to take away finished dishes.  Our entrees seem to be lost too.  We’ve almost run out of gossip (can you believe that?) and we’re so desperate, we beg the waiter to find the vanished bread guy.


          Now a runner from the kitchen appears. He stands nearby holding a tray.  He clearly hasn’t got a clue what table it goes too. A waiter studies the plates, grabs the pasta. It’s mine. Huge portion of, alas, pallid amatriciana atop a hill of bucatini. I can’t taste pork jowl or pancetta.


Nothing is criminally wrong with the bucatini amatriciana but nothing’s exactly right.


          But it’s better than Lilliane’s garden-topped veal Milanese. “Something is wrong here. Last night it was wonderful. I wanted you to taste it.  But this is soft and soggy,” she says, rightly insulted. “I’m not eating this.”  She sends it back.  I fill her bread plate with pasta to keep her going.


A giant island of veal milanese escapes the kitchen uncrisped and gets sent back.


          On second try, the veal flapping over the edge of the plate like a giant’s footprint is quite edible if you like that sort of thing, which I do not. But we’ve eaten so much bread, the two of us barely dent the chop. Each of us tastes it and tastes again, just to confirm that it is now properly crisp.


          We decide against dessert. The solicitous waiter is back. “But you can’t go without dessert. You must have sorbet. Each sorbet comes in the shell of the fruit.”


          Shall we?


          “Alright. Bring sorbet and the check.”


          “Oh good heavens, it’s twenty to nine,” I cry. “Have we really been here three hours?” We ask the captain to charge us for sorbet and split the check. 


It took three hours to reach sorbet time, but I must say the lemon is splendid.


          Our chits arrive with the sorbet but with no charge for sorbet. I take a bite, lemon. And another. Have you ever seen two women trying to agree on a tip while eating just one more slurp of sorbet? It’s $180 each plus whatever. I tip as if never to return. Lilliane tips  just in case a client insists she get him a table. 


          Of course, gourmand savants know very well Il Mulino is no longer the innocent lair it once was when it was the one and only. The new owners have opened outposts in Tokyo, Long Island, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, San Juan, Orlando and Atlantic City. So maybe Il Mulino is not as fresh and brashly agreeable as it used to be. I think Lilliane would agree that the two of us are not all that fresh anymore ourselves, and I for one, am certifiably crankier.


37 East 60th between Park and Madison Avenues. 212 750 3270. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 3 pm. Lunch at the bar till 5. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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