Comp and Circumstance At Il Mulino New York, the servers giveth, the till taketh away

Escape Claws: The grappa’s free; the langoustines, not so much.
(Photograph by Charles Steck)

Il Mulino New York has immigrated to Thomas Circle and brought its own language. According to its Web site, “[t]he word ‘No’ does not exist” at the Greenwich Villagenborn chain. In fact, the restaurant’s business model rests so much on service and hospitality that the owners—Abruzzo-born brothers Gino and Fernando Masci, who opened their flagship restaurant in 1981—make sure that all staff training at satellite locations meets their standards of deferentiality and generosity.

The free samples start before you’re even approached by one of the tuxedoed servers who mill through the dining room. Plates of antipasti—most recently air-cured salami and sautéed zucchini—sit on empty tables as part of the place settings. After your “captain” rattles off a long list of recommended dishes, deputy servers arrive with several types of bread. Later, another server will waddle from table to table, hefting a huge wheel of parmigiano reggiano and carving out racquetball-sized portions. Still later, that same guy might make the rounds with a huge block of strawberry-studded ice, ladling complimentary post-meal samples of a flavored grappa from a jar frozen within. The room’s cookie-cutter dark-wood, Old World vibe has plenty of good intentions but is missing the relaxed feel that goes with the real thing; it’s hard not to be keenly aware that you’re part of an “experience.”

In the last five years, the Il Mulino New York experience has expanded to Tokyo, Long Island, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, with more cities to come. That’s a lot of gratis cured meat, the cost of which is undoubtedly offset by the high-priced menu. Starters range from $9 to about $25, and a rack of lamb runs $65. A more reasonably priced meal can be had if you stick to the basics—a salad and a simple pasta will set you back about 40 bucks—but if you want a piece of meat or fish, it’ll cost you a chunk of change.

The chunk of flesh you’ll get in return is likely to be just as hefty. That lamb amounts to eight chops, and the $48 osso buco is large enough for two. The veal shank is tender, caramelized, and served with a marrow fork and a heap of saffron risotto. The rich, deeply yellow rice comes with many of Il Mulino’s dozens of entrees and daily specials; it has a wonderfully creamy texture—and yet it’s oversalted. It’s not the only disappointment: The veal saltimbocca is soggy. House-made pappardelle is too chewy, and the sweet sausage that tops it is rolled into tough balls.

Some of the responsibility for the food has to be shared with the servers, who do a lot of what restaurant spokesperson Danielle Piacente calls “tableside cooking” but which looks more like seasoning, heating, and plating at free-standing wedding-buffet-style burners. Garnishes and antipasti are pulled from a huge display at the center of the dining room that also serves as a rustic showcase for Il Mulino’s line of pasta sauces. And what you buy in the jar is exactly what you’ll get on your plate: The sauces are the same recipe that’s cranked out by a team of line cooks each night.

“[Il Mulino] is not a chef-driven restaurant,” says Piacente. The corporate executive chef travels down from New York and “passes along the duties to the D.C. staff.”

Those duties aren’t limited to the kitchen and dining room burners. There is the ongoing floor show in a diner’s peripheral vision. The almost oppressive offerings still made for an easy sell during an inaugural visit, when a server cruised by with a bushel of huge, shell-on langoustines, the restaurant’s signature seafood. No, they weren’t free, but they were available as a starter or as an entree.

The appetizer portion was a letdown. Four tender but scrawny tails, in some sort of gooey coating, curled tinily against their piles of spinach. You can order them with the shells on, but our waiter, after noting this, forgot to ask which we preferred. If you can’t withstand the lure of the bushel, go with the shells on, if only to remind you of that bountiful pitch prop.

An order of tiramisu arrived one evening like a kid playing dress-up, sporting chocolate syrup, a hazelnut rolled-wafer cookie, whipped cream, and zabaglione. A server could be seen standing at the center console, wielding a squirt bottle and flinging berries onto the plate with whip-cracking aplomb. The presentation was mildly entertaining but obliterated any hint of mascarpone or espresso.

Still, who could dislike a dessert that didn’t show up on the tab? With all of the complimentary food, the tiramisu’s absence from the bill during a recent visit seemed an unlikely oversight. Surely pointing out the omission would earn a diner amnesty either way? Nope, it was a mistake, and the server refigured our check. Perhaps, in Il Mulino New York’s pageant of graciousness, there is no room for improvisation.

Il Mulino, 1110 Vermont Ave. NW., 202-293-1001

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x466.

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