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.
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.
Reason makes an appearance on the wine list: odd for a restaurant with menu prices that bump into the ozone layer, though the by-the-glass options are ridiculously paltry (pour the Barolos and Brunellos for God's sake). Values are buried among the lush crop of Italian wines and some California bottles. We pulled a rich Fassati Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a fresh Pio Cesare Dolcetto d'Alba with acres of clean fruit for $65 and under. Wine is decanted in large inelegant pitchers: a mundane ice water vessel. It's drained methodically, and the empty bottle is left on the table so the label can be examined at leisure--an impossibility without a flashlight.
The room is dark, so it's difficult to decipher its complexion. The walls are a dark red, we think, and are covered with still lifes and landscapes: asparagus stalks, tomatoes, peaches and furrowed vineyards. Then again they could be nudes.
Entrées are mostly spectacular. The only slighted example is also the most expensive--a special ritualized by a presentation of tubbed whole langoustines, meticulously arranged gridlike on ice. Eight shelled tails, floured and sautéed in wine and garlic, ring a mound of risotto embedded with shrimp and crab and pebbled with the richest sweet peas we've come across in years. Instead of elegantly smooth and creamy, the risotto is coarse and a bit gluey, and the tails are a bit mushy. Still, the flavors ring joy.
Capellini pasta (slightly thicker than angel hair) arrabiata in its tart, rich sauce is flawless, as is the gnocchi. The latter arrives in a huge bowl carpeted with embryo-shaped potato dumplings pasted in a thick pesto with coarse basil clippings and a potent burst of garlic that fills the mouth with a pleasing sting. And in keeping with the Il Mulino spirit, the price is garish.
But the most compelling composition here is also, perhaps, the most mundane: veal Marsala, a masterpiece. It arrives as a large smoky brown sprawl, resembling a splat of culinary sewage in this darkness. Thin patches of veal are crowded in a haze of porcini mushrooms slathered in a rich, smooth Marsala sauce of uncommon broad richness, leaving hints of toffee on the finish. The veal is substantive and chewy, giving pith to a dish that could easily teeter into mush--striking, in effect, a dangerous balance.
Founded in New York by Fernando and Gino Masci, Il Mulino was shepherded into Dallas by Phil Romano and his cohort Joe Palladino. And it's a hammer blow to the city's moribund Italian strain that forever wavers between mediocre and tragic. Patton's advice for defeating the Germans was to "grab those pusillanimous sons of bitches by the nose and kick 'em in the balls." Il Mulino does this to Dallas Italian--with velvet booties and gloves. Both spell victory.
2408 Cedar Springs Road, 214-855-5511. Open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$$$
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