After nearly a decade-long stint working at one of the city’s top fine dining destinations, former Eleven Madison Park sous chef Connie Chung is making a foray into fast casual. Her breakout restaurant, a Chinese counter-service spot called Milu, opens today in Gramercy, at 333 Park Avenue South, between East 24th and East 25th.
Chung spent nine of the last 10 years working at Make It Nice, the heavy-hitting hospitality group behind Eleven Madison Park, most recently as the company’s director of culinary projects, and before that, as a sous chef at the three-Michelin starred restaurant. At Milu, Chung is serving the kinds of dishes she learned to make at Eleven Madison Park — not as part of the restaurant’s elaborate $335 tasting menu, but those that were made after-hours, as comforting family-style meals for kitchen staff.
“I got into cooking because I really enjoy making delicious food for people,” she says. “It’s corny, but that’s the heart of it.” Milu may be a step away from fine dining, but for Chung, that’s a move in the right direction.
The new restaurant serves Chinese dishes in a counter-service format. Hearty mains like Sichuan-spiced cauliflower, fiery brisket, and ginger scallion salmon appear atop bowls of rice and mixed grains. There’s also a half-dozen sides that can be ordered a la carte or added onto any bowl, including chile- and garlic-marinated cucumbers, pork and fennel dumplings, and an herby cilantro salad, made from a mix of celery, fennel, and scallions.
If served at any other restaurant, these dishes would likely fall into that thorny category of food known as “fast casual,” but Milu isn’t one for labels. “Fast casual is a loaded term,” says Vincent Chao, a former director of business development at Make It Nice and a partner at the new restaurant. “Where I grew up [in Hong Kong], a rice bowl is just a rice bowl. It’s what people eat every day. That’s our food, and we’re very proud of it.”
Milu “isn’t trying to be fancy,” Chao says. In addition to its rice and grain bowls, the restaurant serves an array of desserts that are more playful than pretentious. Soft serve ice creams are available in milk tea and egg tart flavors, while its dessert buns are filled with vanilla custard and cubes of sweet pineapple, the kind one might expect to find suspended in sugar water in an elementary school lunch.
The showstopper at Milu is its slow-cooked duck, a dish that Chung refers to as “duck confit,” nodding to her past at Eleven Madison Park. It appears on the restaurant’s menu as “mandarin duck.” The dish consists of a sizable leg of meat that’s been stewed in its own fat for several hours and, regardless of what one calls it, it’s a must order, says Chung.
In September, Chung debuted the dish as part of a “friends and family” dinner series at Park Slope cafe Winner. The dish — served over duck fat rice that’s been seasoned with garlic, onion, and ginger — sold out in just a few days.
Across the city, restaurant owners have scaled back their plans at newly opened restaurants, or pivoted to more casual styles of service like takeout, delivery, and make-at-home meal kits. Chung intended Milu to be a casual, counter-service spot from the start, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant hasn’t had to make adjustments.
The restaurant was originally geared to the office crowds in the area, but with many people working from home, Milu is offering its bowls as larger-portioned entrees or as family meals serving two or four. Its sides can be purchased a la carte in bulk. A selection of pantry staples, including chile oil, dumpling sauce, and soy paste, are also for sale.
The menu at Milu slightly more expensive than some of its casual peers in the neighborhood — the restaurant’s mains range in price from $11 to $24 (before adding sides), depending on the meat and portion size ordered — but it’s also one of the only spots in the neighborhood serving fall-apart duck for takeout and delivery.
Milu is open for takeout, delivery, and reduced-capacity indoor dining from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Closed Sundays.