Mulino’s Restaurant – Northampton

 Sometimes, you just know things will turn out right. I hadn’t been to MULINO’S RESTAURANT (41 Strong Ave., Northampton, 586-8900, since it moved from Center Street more than a couple of years ago. I knew that the Bishops had sold the building that housed Mulino’s, Bishop’s Lounge and the Sierra Grille in August 2008 to Volkan Polatol and a group of restaurateurs who were also involved with the Opa Opa restaurants in Southampton and Williamsburg. What I didn’t know was whether the food had survived the change.

Mulino’s looks like an Italian restaurant: iron scrollwork, tan faux-stucco walls, large oil paintings of Mediterranean food. The recipes went with the sale, so the menu is familiar. Polatol says that he didn’t want to change what was working, but that “menus go through seasons and people’s tastes change. So you adapt.”

My wife and I started with the Tuscany Almond Salad, a large plate of fresh mesclun greens topped with roasted beets, toasted almond slivers, bits of Gorgonzola and a light citrusy dressing. My wife, like most of the women I know, orders her dressing on the side. This salad was already dressed, but it met with no complaint. It could have easily served three or four people. We paired it with the day’s ravioli special, four crabmeat-filled ravs in a lemon cream sauce that disappeared in short order. On another visit, the fried calamari was spot-on – cooked through, chewy but not rubbery, greaseless and lightly battered.

For her main course my wife ordered the Fra Diavolo, a spicy mussel-, scallop- and shrimp-filled tomato sauce over linguini. The underlying sauce was a good one and the linguini was properly cooked. The spice bordered on too hot, but one doesn’t order Fra Diavolo if one doesn’t like spice. I had the Veal Saltinbocca [sic]. Normally a roll, this version consisted of two sautéed veal cutlets layered with prosciutto and roasted red peppers. There wasn’t a lot of mozzarella, but the dish was fine and the marsala sauce was a good match. The style for mashed potatoes these days is to leave a few small lumps so you know they are actual potatoes and not from a box. Pieces of sautéed garlic in the potatoes added a nice note. Thin mandolin-cut disks of carrot, zucchini and yellow squash accompanied the veal. Their size allowed them to be quick-sautéed without becoming mushy or watery.

On another visit, my friend Jeff and I attempted to share the Pasta Bolognaise and the Rompi Campo. I say tried because Jeff, whose mother is Italian and who spent much of his professional life in restaurant kitchens, took several bites of the Bolognaise, pronounced it one of the best he’s eaten and guarded it from all but a few grudging tastes. The Bolognaise was served over wide, flat pappardelle noodles and was smooth and meaty. The Rompi Campo is built of grilled salmon, sautéed artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, mesclun greens and mushrooms, served over fettuccine. The artichoke hearts and a touch of balsamic vinegar gave a pleasantly tart taste. I avoid farmed salmon, so I asked for a shrimp substitution. “No problem,” was the server’s reply. “I can substitute anything you want.” When I mentioned this to Polatol, he was pleased. “The kitchen is very flexible and we’ll make whatever you want if we have the ingredients in-house.”

Polatol grew up in Turkey and came to the States 15 years ago when he was 18. He went to work in a pizza place that his uncle owned in Boston, and has been in the restaurant business ever since. “I can cook,” he says, “but I stay in the front of the house.” In his last two jobs, he was the manager of kitchens for the Springfield Marriott and the Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford.

For dessert, I wanted something light. Our server suggested a flourless chocolate torte. I wasn’t in a chocolate mood (heresy, I know), so, at his suggestion, I went with the crème brûlée. I had grown tired of the dish and stopped ordering it because it seemed to be everywhere. This version reminded me why crème brûlée had become such a cliché – it is good and the crisp burnt-sugar top is a pleasing contrast to the rich custard.

Times are hard for restaurants. Costs are high, people have less discretionary cash and the tendency is to cut corners. Polatol pointed out that Mulino’s freezer is large enough to hold its ice cream and not much else. “Everything comes in fresh every two days,” he said. He is dealing with the times by using chef’s specials to gauge diner’s reactions to different dishes. Like many restaurants, Mulino’s offers a fixed price dinner. I have not tried it, but it is $17.99 for appetizer, entrée and dessert.

Mulino’s is open seven days a week for dinner. The house salad is $4.50 and the larger portions of salad are around $9.95. Appetizers range from $6.95 to $9.95, and pastas from $14.95 to $19.95. Entrees are $16.95 to $23.95. Desserts are $5.95.

Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 18, 2009.

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