A twenty-seven rating from Zagat, bold recommendations from both weekend-warrior foodies and trusted, published ones alike, over twenty years of staying power in the toughest dining city on the planet... but not so fast. There seems to be some cracks in the blades of the windmill at Il Mulino.
Or maybe I needed to have ordered the veal parm; that's the one thing everybody seems set on raving about. But a restaurant cannot sustain this level of acclaim and only be able to perform with one dish, so I will proceed. Il Mulino seems to have become the McDonald's of hyper-expensive restaurants, with locations in Aspen, Vegas, Atlanta, San Juan, etc., etc. Here in the city, the dining room appears to have retained its original decor, circa 1981, and perhaps some of its original waiters, judging from the from the wrinkles in their worn but welcoming countenances. It feels much like a grandmother's home (I almost expected to smell mothballs) when she had all the family over, except for these seated parties aren't your aunts and cousins. We made our way towards a cozy table near the back, dodging a fugitive branch of cherry blossom, a premature harbinger of a spring that is still a long ways off, illustrated by the foot of snow outside. But the menus echo the same brash disregard for seasonality as do the floral arrangements, featuring asparagus and artichokes, fresh tomatoes and zucchini. And, no, I don't think every restaurant in Manhattan has to be a mecca of the locavore, seasonal mantra, but it just makes the place seem all the more out of touch. Almost immediately, a smattering of plates were doled out robotically: delicate slices of peppery salami, salty hunks of parmigiano-reggiano, and juicy, messy tomato crostini with boatloads of garlic and a single, forlorn mussel, along with tall, rectangular menus that spoke for only about fifty percent of the offerings at hand. Our waiter arrived to impart the rest of them, a list of specials no less complicated than a State of the Union address, and with talking points possibly even more difficult to remember. None of our questions couldn't he answer, but they got all mixed up trying to remember whether the cappellini went with frutti di mare or tomato-porcini, or whether the Ligurian-style was for the branzino or salmon. When the specials are as expansive as the regular menu, there's certainly no shame in a nice little printout.
After a tectonic struggle navigating the menu, first courses came out in good time, but in less appealing form. My fiore di zucca (I know, I admit I was testing them a bit) were sodden (obviously frozen), chewy flowers, but more poignantly, stuffed with an abundant cheesiness instead of the porcini and vegetable mix that I'm sure
had been described from that inexhaustible specials list. Although I wouldn't wholly trust my memory; there was just too much to remember. Unless your a regular there, ordering tried-and-true favorites along with maybe one special that piqued your interest, the verbal list just becomes a jumble. And so, the cheese-filledfiori were tough to cut (doing so just smooshed out the insides) and bathed in a garlicky, buttery sauce. Scallops were simply cooked, barely seasoned and entirely forgettable aside from their impressive size. A little mound of garlicky spinach helped liven them up to some degree. Which reminds me, almost everything here is swathed in garlic, surprising for such a destination-date place. In fact, I felt quite out of place in that my birthday isn't 'til June, and throughout the course of the evening six rounds of "Happy Birthday" jubilantly burst out, once each at just about every table but ours. I should've pretended to be a Capricorn just to feel more like part of the group. Spinach salad was similarly unastonishing. The baby leaves of spinach were tender enough and it was generous with mushrooms, but the dressing bland and scant on bacon.
Entrees were, unfortunately, similarly underwhelming. But big!! Really, really big! The cappellini (which DID end up coming
with the frutti di mare) was an enormous bowl of pasta, slightly undercooked and noticeably underseasoned. Topped with a bucket of shellfish and seafood, the plain pasta just spoke of really nothing, in particular. Dover sole was presented first skin-on, baked whole, then whisked away to be fileted in private, reemerging with the sheen of Meuniere that got a little gummy, sticking more easily to the fork than to the tender flesh of the fish. Lonesome on the plate as it was, I had a side of broccoli raab. The overcooked vegetable sort of disintegrated into a pool of oil in which it swam, again heavy on the garlic and salt.
Not that there was room for it, since portions defy real Italian proportions, catering instead to American-Italian abundance, but since I was there, decided to see what the desserts had to say for themselves. Not that we didn't see them all at the entrance upon arrival, exposed to the blasts of frigid air each time the front door opened. Probably this would've more been detrimental to less hulking specimens. On the comparitively lighter side were poached pears with zabaglione. Dastardly sweet pears, carved table-side (of course), placed in a star configuration around marshmallowy cream.No better than maybe one-bite yummy due to its excessive sugariness, especially after the heft of the meal. The tiramisu, on the other hand, was pretty darned great. Not so rummy as it too often is, but light and pillowy and strong on coffee and cocoa flavors instead of boozy sweet. Super fancy, architectural, expensive-looking outsourced birthday cakes were arriving right and left, along with rousing renditions of their accompanying anthem, which certainly helped define the place for what it is: the Carmine's of the Trustafarians. Our bill, with not a single drop of alcohol (aside from that in the tiramisu) came to over $350 (including tax and tip) for two people. Absurd. I'd dine out three times and thrice better in dozens of joints. For a historic place with such an apparent following, I'm glad to have checked it off my list (especially since it happened off my dime), but only for knowing what I know now. If ever it were, Il Mulino ain't what it used to be.
86 West 3rd Street