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Bar Milano

CUISINE: Northern Italian.

VIBE: Elegant and deafening Murray Hill spot.
OCCASION: Casual date; breakfast; neighborhood dining.
DON’T MISS DISH: Cabbage with farro; caviar-topped potato with egg; monkfish and foie gras.
PRICE: Appetizers, $9-$24; entrees, $20-$43; dessert, $5.
RESERVATIONS: Highly recommended.

323
Third Ave., at 24th St., (212) 683-3035. Breakfast, lunch and dinner;
seven days a week, 8 a.m.-3 a.m. Dinner served seven days, 5
p.m.-midnight. Bar menu available till 2 a.m.

Whoever heard of a month-long wait for a reservation at a restaurant
at 24th and Third? But that’s what you get when brothers Joe and Jason
Denton open a restaurant in Manhattan. Most of their places – ‘ino,
‘inoteca, Lupa – have been rustic, wine-focused spots. But at Bar
Milano, on the border of Gramercy Park and Murray Hill, they’re
challenging themselves and their clientele with upscale cooking that
shows real imagination. The Northern Italian food is not always
successful, but it is often enough to justify the wait.

Consider
the cabbage. You’d hardly expect this appetizer to be the best thing on
the menu. But what a cabbage! Such a humble leaf until it’s stuffed
with farro, dried currants and cherries and anchored in a chicken and
cabbage consommé. Then it becomes a Cinderella story. The anonymous
oysters that accompany it – dredged in farro flour – are almost an
afterthought.

Or imagine the patata imbottita – thinly
sliced potato wrapped around two egg yolks with a salty caviar cap in a
warm puddle of fontina. It’s breakfast by another name and every bit as
satisfying. The veal chop is just as pleasing – veal two ways in a
single chop, crusty and breaded Milanese-style on one side, naked and
tender on the other.

One sign of the culinary aspirations at
Bar Milano is what they do with foie gras. At most places, it takes a
solo turn. Here, it plays a supporting role, which makes it all the
more interesting. They pipe it into a savory quail mortadella. They use
it to moisten a seared monkfish that would otherwise be too dry.
Accompanied by sweet cipollini onions and chanterelle, porcini and
morel mushrooms, it is a perfectly balanced entrée.

Not
everything works, of course. Most of the pastas are disappointing – the
shrimp ravioli was reminiscent of take-out potstickers. The tagliatelle
Bolognese, lightly glossed in a hanger steak ragu, wasn’t robust.
Neither was the veal-stuffed pasta, served in a faint reduction with
stale drifts of breadcrumbs.

This is not to fault the ambition
at Bar Milano. The two chefs, Steve Connaughton (Lupa) and Eric
Kleinman (‘inoteca), have obviously set an example that motivates their
staff. Our server was extremely well-versed in the subtle nuances of
every dish on the menu. And in answer to a question, one of the owners
brought out a 1984 cookbook called “Pâtés and Terrines” to show us the
photograph that inspired the quail and foie gras appetizer.

The
only distraction in the dining room at Bar Milano is the noise – at
times unbearable – which echoes off the marble walls and glass wine
cabinets. If you ordered the seven-course tasting menu, you’d be deaf
by dessert. We gave up trying to talk by the arrival of the
stracciatella parfait, tiny chocolate cones filled with goat’s milk
gelato. The real din is in the bar, which is to the dining room as a
concession stand is to a movie theater.

Most nights it’s
shoulder to shoulder with people who seem to have no intention of
leaving the bar. Nobody has ever accused the Dentons of not knowing how
to turn a profit. You’ll need a stiff drink to brave the crowd. I’d
suggest the killer Corpse Reviver.

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