Velvet Boot

Il Mulino gives Dallas Italian a kick

 Il Mulino is the General George S. Patton of restaurants. Not because it is violently audacious or prances through Palermo and Messina--although it does flaunt langoustines from Sardinia--but because it is rife with a paradoxical snarl of highly calculated mannerisms and crudely whittled elegance bordering on caricature. Patton could be bold, crude, flagrant and utterly devoid of sensibility. Just before shoving off for operation TORCH in 1942, the Allied invasion of North Africa, the general offered the following dinner toast on a military base: "Here's to the wives. My, what pretty widows you're going to make."

Yet at the same time Patton was a child of privilege and culture and was highly educated and well-read. According to Rick Atkinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the conflict in North Africa titled An Army at Dawn, Patton's refinement surfaced in odd ways. Just before Allied troops were to hit the shores of Morocco where they would soon be locked in bloody conflict, not with Nazi Germans and Italian fascists but with the Vichy French, Patton was ordered to litter the beaches with propaganda leaflets crafted to dissuade the French from fighting. "Some goddam fool in the United States forgot to put accents in this thing," he said to his intelligence officer. "Get a bunch of your men and put them to work. Let them put the accents where they belong, or none of these goddam leaflets will be dropped. Or do you expect me to land on French soil introduced by such illiterate calling cards?" A platoon of soldiers armed with pencils was deployed to restore the leaflets to literacy.

Il Mulino is equally bold and raw, bluntly flaunting its brash, rich cuisine from Italy's Abruzzi region. Yet it gracefully executes this under a heady veil of elegance. First exhibit: beef carpaccio. It looks like a humongous meat pie. Not the fussed-over kind with a crust in perfectly blended color striations effortlessly sweeping from blond to gold to bronze, but like a cartoon pie that at any moment will explode in a flock of grackles. Great bumpy beef sheets in rosy raw are draped over the entire expanse of a large plate, chilled and sweating profusely. The sheets shroud clusters of supple, racy arugula, greens that taunt the brisk mustard beads crisscrossing the channels of fat running through the red. A splayed cornichon crowns this pie, like some mutant berry. The meat, almost frozen, with hints of icy crunch (a prefab in the chiller no doubt), is thicker than the lacy muscle gracing some carpaccio plates. Yet through the iciness it is elegantly tender and silky. And at 25 bucks, it was bold.

Il Mulino grabs by the nose and kicks in the balls. And that's just what it does to the wallet.
Tom Jenkins
Il Mulino grabs by the nose and kicks in the balls. And that's just what it does to the wallet.

Details

Carpaccio $25
Veal Marsala $29.75
Capellini/half-order $12.38
Langoustines with risotto $55
Shrimp cocktail $25
Gnocchi $24.75
Closed Location

Exhibit two: shrimp cocktail, three shrimps' worth. They're couched in a massive apparatus, rising out of a huge glass bowl filled with crushed ice. The bowl is bull's-eyed with a smaller bowl holding a splash of thin but zesty cocktail sauce. Between the outer edge of the small bowl and the inside edge of the larger is where the shrimp are embedded, arching out of the ice like partially submerged barrel hoops. Shrimp are firm and moist, but surprisingly shy of bold richness. That boldness is reserved for the price: $25. Did we mention there are just three shrimp?

Yet it's all cloaked under a jacket of elegance. (Jackets, by the way, are required, except in summer.) Waiters sport crisp tuxedos and move with impeccable precision and graceful warmth. They are prompt and keen, clearing away used flatware and deploying reinforcements in seconds. But like Patton, whose sloppy attention to logistics often stranded his troops without fuel and ammo, Il Mulino sometimes strands you in the dining ditches. The dining room is so dark and brooding, it's impossible to read the jarringly frilly menu script or even the cleaner type on the wine list. Waiters dispense penlights, but on one occasion the "on" button on the jet black case was difficult to locate, while on another the penlight batteries went dead after a few seconds.

The ordering rituals begin with a lengthy sermon of specials that is both hard to decipher on account of the noise, the Sinatra (he's not just for steak houses anymore), and the accents; and it's difficult to organize in the head without nodding off. (Are you sure there isn't a typo somewhere on the $95 sea bass?)

But in the overall Il Mulino scheme, these are small details, and the relentless attention to details makes pricey dining experiences worth the loot. Eating is not only a sensual respite for the palate; it is a feast for the eyes. If one is crafting beautiful food, please permit us to comfortably leer.

And in virtually all instances, this food is beautiful. Just after seating, a waiter delivers a wedge of Reggiano-Parmigiano the size of a boat anchor and gouges out crumbles of the sweet nutty cheese, depositing them on small plates. Zucchini slices, sautéed in wine and garlic, drenched in olive oil and flurried with oregano and pepper flakes, are simply the best rendition of this vegetable we've ever tasted. Narrow ovals of salami are arranged around the plate like flower petals. Bruschetta is a blanket of rambunctiously brisk tomato chunks fettered to basil and flakes of oregano over a brittle wedge of toast.

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