2008_05_food_denton.jpgJason Denton has made his mark in the New York restaurant landscape with well loved favorites like Lupa, 'ino, and ‘inoteca. His latest endeavor, Bar Milano, opened in April, serving not only lunch and dinner, but brunch and weekday breakfast. This upscale tribute to Northern Italy is housed in a Gramercy Park space that has been described as "cursed" due to the short lifespans of former restaurant tenants. Hopefully Denton's talent, pedigree, and strong partners will make the notion of a curse laughable and succeed where others have failed.

So tell us a little about Bar Milano and how it came to be. Over the past couple of years we were thinking about coming up with something new with Eric Kleinman, my partner at ‘inoteca, and my brother. I had been working with Steve Connaughton at Lupa. I’ve always been a big fan of Steve’s cooking, the way he is with people, and I wanted to be in business with him for a long time. We had talked about doing something eventually and just over the last couple of years trying to figure out exactly what we were looking to do. Instead of doing another ‘inoteca style place or Lupa, I wanted to do more of a family thing with my brother, and get Steve and Eric involved. We wanted to dress it up a little bit; still maintain a fun approach, but make things a little crisper, more spacious and elegant, and that’s where the Northern Italian thing came into play. Lupa’s more central to Southern and we wanted to focus on the North.

Did it involve traveling? Yes. We went to Emilia-Romana, spent some time in Bologna, Milan and Piedmont. Just really ate and drank for breakfast, lunch and dinner for about a week straight.

That’s got to be rough. Well, it’s funny when I tell my wife it’s work. She’s like, “right.” I come back bloated with a big smile, but up North there weren’t many salads or vegetables. They look at that as peasant food. So when we’d go to dinner, it was over the top meat, cheese, butter and richness. Until we got to Milan that’s all we had – fried this, cured that – just very rich meals. We had a great time, took as many pictures as we could to kind of get the visuals of what the bar might be with a lot of marble and brass and wood. We wanted kind of a more grown-up restaurant but still tried to have a lot of fun with it.

The look of the restaurant is very distinctive. What were you going for? We were definitely looking for a place in time, but more of a timeless place. We do have people come in and say it’s kind of 70’s retro. Some older people come in that see it and say, “this is what I remember in Milan.” It’s a warm feeling, which is what we were trying to capture, but we also added the modern approach to a lot of classic materials, like the marble and the brass and the wood – to try to give it a new look. We had a lot of help from our designer, Sam O'Donnahue at Established NY. He was great because we gave him all our pictures of our travels in Northern Italy and then he just put it together.

He was really strong on the big marble piece in the dining room. At first we were a little skeptical but at the end of the day we really love it because it creates a nice separation between the bar and the dining room.

You said that the foods you were eating were very, very rich. Did you adapt that a little for your menu? We did. What we tried to do was make it more our interpretations of those dishes, so a lot of the ingredients are all the same but they might be changed up a little bit. They are Northern Italian inspired, but done with our hands. A bagna cauda is traditionally a warm bath with the anchovies and they serve raw vegetables with it. We do a salad of really nice baby vegetables that’s tossed with a bagna cauda vinaigrette. The veal Milanese that we do is not quite as pounded. When we were there it was pounded very thin and fried, but we wanted to try and take that a step up, so we do it breaded, fry it one side down then roast it on the other side; we don’t really pound it out as much – it’s a thicker veal chop because we want people to taste the veal. We try to be environmentally conscious across the board with regard to where our meats and vegetables are coming from. All the animals are heritage, we source out to small farmers, so we want people to be able to taste the meat.

You work very closely with your younger brother. How’s that?
He’s the greatest guy in the world and it’s been probably one of the greatest things to have is my brother move out here. First to have him here and to be a partner, both because he’s a spectacular guy and a salt of the earth fellow and because I’m very lucky to have him as a partner.

You don’t find yourselves reverting to 12 year old boy behavior or anything like that? On occasion – that’s always healthy. But no. We have our moments, but at the end of the day, we really respect each others’ visions of where we want to take it, If you didn’t have disagreements on certain things then why be in partnerships?

How did you get into the restaurant business? I got into the restaurant business when I was 18. I started washing dishes when I was going to college and for some reason I thought that washing dishes was the thing for me in the restaurant business so I dropped out of school. My parents freaked out but I made a deal with them. They had this employee of the year award. I pulled them aside after about two months of them harassing me about when I was going back to school and I said if I can get employee of the year, will you let me pursue my dreams? It was a done deal. So that year, I worked as hard as I could. I washed dishes, bussed tables, eventually I was waiting tables, working behind the bar, taking stock, taking orders, anything I could do. At the end of the year, I got my little Movado watch – I was employee of the year. My parents were really excited.

My uncle was in the nightclub and restaurant business in San Francisco. His name is Harry Denton, he owns the Starlight Room and he’s an amazing guy. He’s always been a true inspiration, more than anything, in how to make people happy and work a room. When he walks in, it’s like magic. He’s like a magnet for happiness. So that’s something I’ve always tried to emulate. He opened up a place in ’91, and I was 21, so I started working bar back or the door or anything I could do. That’s where I met one of my partners here, Tony Abou-Ganim, who’s our cocktail specialist at Bar Milano. He’s a great bar man and a great guy. I was bar backing for him. We’ve stayed in touch and I brought him on board.

I was at Harry Denton’s for about a year and a half and my uncle pulled me aside and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to open a restaurant. He said then I should really learn how to cook to get perspective on what’s going on. The next day, I started in the kitchen. Started with the basics – boning cases of chickens, prepping vegetables, then worked my way up to stocks and then I got to make salads, but I found I loved the kitchen. At the end of the day, what I was missing was that I couldn’t see the reaction of people’s faces in the dining room. So I went to Europe, traveled a bit, cooked in London, and ultimately I had too many trips on my visa and got deported back to the States.

And you landed in New York.
Yes. I got to New York, came across this little place called Casa Anise – cooked there for a while. Then I worked at Union Square Café as a waiter. At some point, I talked to Steve Crane, a fellow waiter from my uncle’s place in San Francisco, and he had opened up a place w/Mario Batali called Po and they had some shifts available. Tony was already working there behind the bar. I would wait tables a few days a week and ultimately I left Union Sqare to go there full time.

After being at Po for about 4 years I had a great time but I realized that that was my cap. I felt like it was the best it could ever be as a waiter. The money was great, the people were great, but I found myself in a position at 28 thinking, if I don’t move and roll the dice now, I’ll be 35 and still making great money, but I’d miss that opportunity. I had met my wife along the way, Jennifer, I waited on her at Po. She was working at Chanel at the time and our hours were so backwards. So she quit her job and got into the restaurant business so we could be closer in hours and spend more time together. She’s the greatest. After Po, about 3 years later, we had gone to a friend’s wedding in Italy in Monterossa and we stumbled upon this little hole in the wall and they had this little guy pressing sandwiches, bruschettas, and listening to rock and roll music. And we thought – this is cool, so we logged that for someday, thinking we could bring it here. A few years later we found this little dog grooming salon on Bedford Street and Jenny said, "this is it, let’s do it."

And ‘ino was born. Yes. We borrowed money and the contractors who had worked on Babbo built it in exchange for letting them sleep on our couch. It wasn’t doing well at first. For the first five months, we decided to open 8 am to 2am, 7 days a week – with rent, I wanted to be open as many hours as I could, not thinking that I would need sleep ever. I’d get there at about 7 in the morning and get home at 3 in the morning. Worked a lot for the first 6 months, then finally some of the reviews came in and the word kind of caught on. Joey moved out from Lake Tahoe to open with us. It was Joey waiting tables, my wife worked the bar, and I cooked. We got an apartment across the street so we could just walk across the street and go to work. Eventually it sort of started coming along, but after a while I felt like I was stuck there. So I decided maybe it was time to roll the dice and work on something else.

And that became Lupa?
Yes. There was a space where Lupa is now. Mario and Joe [Bastianich] were in there looking at the space and we kind of ran into each other there; we looked at each other and talked about what we thought about doing with it – it was a good fit. Mark Ladner was working at Babbo at the time and we thought it was a good time to do a casual osteria. After Babbo had taken off we thought the neighborhood needed something like that. It’s been a great experience working with those guys. They’ve been great partners and great businessmen. They offer so much insight; they’re always there to answer questions and I can lean on them for everything I need.

What was next?After about five years at Lupa, Mark talked about doing some kind of pizzeria, so Otto came about and I partnered up with those guys there, which was a great experience.

‘Inoteca opened up about six months later. I was in the East Village with my wife and I had heard that Keith McNally was opening up a place there. Whenever Keith hits a neighborhood, it’s like gold. We found the space on the corner – a great location – it used to be a club that got shut down and it just felt right. Joe, Eric and I had been looking for a space for a while.

When did Eric come into the picture?Eric used to cook at Lupa about eight years ago, then he did a project uptown. After that he was looking for something new. He came to ‘ino to see what we do there. At ‘inoteca we wanted to do a more muscular version of an ‘ino, with a bigger kitchen, eight hundred wines on the list. We thought the neighborhood would be able to deal with a wine bar. We love to see 20-somethings hanging out in ripped up t-shirts and jeans drinking an awesome glass of wine sitting next to someone in a suit. That for me is really special – to bridge that gap.

Looking forward, do you see getting that itch again in about five years to do something new? Probably sooner than that. I tend to do things in groups of two and then see them grow for a couple of years. We’ll look for another space when it’s right. We try to take it one step at a time.

Where do you like to eat in the city when you’re not here?
Tia Pol, the bar at Gramercy Tavern, Ushiwakamaru on Houston Street, and I love Momofuku Ssam Bar.

Bar Milano, 323 3rd Avenue at 24th Street, (212) 683-3035.