- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

There’s an instant good feeling as you step into Il Mulino, the new Italian restaurant on Vermont Avenue Northwest. Maitre d’ David Shan greets his lunch and dinner guests as though they were old friends. Smiling faces abound. The restaurant itself has a settled-in, elegant, somewhat old-fashioned look, as if it has always been here. It’s comfortable, with roses and lamps on the tables. Handsome iron chandeliers light the room.

On a recent evening, Mr. Shan escorted us to our table. We waited. Our waiter eventually appeared to ask whether we wanted something to drink. We asked for the wine list. We waited. The wine list arrived. We waited. Finally, we called the waiter over to ask whether the restaurant served wine by the glass. Yes, and he mentioned several grape varieties, but no vineyards, no countries, no prices. Wines by the glass, we learned, are Italian house wines. This was a prelude to the rest of dinner: long waits and little attention from anyone — not an auspicious beginning for a restaurant with over-the-top prices. Lunch was more successful.

Diners are greeted with antipasti as they are seated: four little slices of salami, a small dish of cold, mushy grilled zucchini and a plate of tomato bruschetta accompanied by garlic bread. The bruschetta and the bread were good, the tomatoes ice-cold. The breadbasket looked appetizing, but the bread had no flavor and the breadsticks were stale.

At lunch, on the other hand, the appetizer of a tomato eggplant ratatouille was room temperature and freshly made, a delicious little antipasto. And the bread (no breadsticks) was fresh and flavorful.

Dinner began with a shared portion of excellent fettuccine Alfredo — almost as good as at Alfredo in Rome. We chose from among a tempting array of pasta and risotto preparations. Rich and creamy, the sauce was studded with little green peas, which added a contrast in color and in texture. At $30, this was not a bargain.

Pappardelle with a tomato basil sauce and house-made sausage is another excellent pasta. The wide noodles are also made in-house and taste fresh and delicious. The dish is lightly sauced, as it would be in Italy; the sausage is mildly spiced.

A superb lunch starter is the eggplant rollatine: thin slices of grilled eggplant are topped with a filling of herbed ricotta, then folded over crepelike and baked with a coating of mozzarella. The dish is served with a light tomato sauce and a side of excellent garlicky sauteed spinach. At dinner, the eggplant is stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat.

There are many starters, hot and cold, all on the menu, ranging from a mixed antipasto plate, octopus salad and beef or tuna carpaccio, to mussels, clams casino and crab cakes.

Veal is the mainstay of any Italian restaurant, and Il Mulino’s is as good as the best. The menu lists almost a dozen veal dishes as well as a veal chop. Saltimbocca is veal sauteed with sage and prosciutto; vitello alla zingara is spicy veal braised in white wine with mushrooms; scallopine alla Romana is veal sauteed with fresh baby artichokes, to name but a few of the chef’s preparations.

Veal piccata is prepared to perfection. Three thin rounds of excellent veal are floured and quickly sauteed in a lemon and butter sauce with a touch of white wine. The classic Italian dish could not have been better. The serving is not enough for large appetites and comes without sides. They must be ordered separately and consist of various vegetables and rosemary potatoes, each priced at $9.

Anticipating that chicken piccata would be the same preparation as the veal, we ordered the piccata di pollo al limone, but were astonished to discover that instead of thin slices of chicken, the piccata turned out to be two large breasts with the wing bones attached.

Like the veal, the chicken was sauced with lemon butter, which was an insufficient amount for the thick breasts. The dish was accompanied by a serving of frozen peas mixed with onions and a tiny dice of prosciutto that failed to complement the chicken. The chicken, like the veal, was first-rate, but either the chef doesn’t know the meaning of piccata, or he hasn’t read the menu.

There are several other chicken dishes and a number of shrimp dishes as well as lobster and langoustines. Fish is not neglected and red meat comes either as various cuts of beef and a rack of lamb, but the veal is the star of the meats.

A lunch dish of sliced steak is served either as a panini topped with grilled onions and a mild, creamy Gorgonzola sauce, or marinated, grilled and served over garlic crostini and topped with aged balsamic steak sauce. The panini is served with crisp, house-made potato chips. It’s a fine sandwich. We ordered it very rare and it arrived medium rare, but it was good nonetheless.

A dessert of three thin slices of super-rich dark flourless chocolate cake brings joy to any chocolate lover’s heart. The house wines at $10 each are reasonable and pleasant. The wines on the list are a bit dear.

Il Mulino is part of a small nationwide chain, but a serious restaurant and a good one. Dinner is expensive, but lunch is considerably less so, and there’s a lunchtime prix fixe of $23 for two courses and $27 for three.

RESTAURANT: Il Mulino New York, 1110 Vermont Ave. NW, 202/293-1001

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday

PRICES: Starters: $8 to $17 (lunch), $9 to $24 (dinner); pasta and risotto $16 to $20 (lunch), $25 to $36 (dinner); panini $10 to $18 (lunch); main courses $15 to $28 (lunch), $28 to $65 (dinner); desserts $7 to $10

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking and dinner valet parking $10

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: McPherson Square (Blue and Orange lines); Farragut North (Red Line)

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