One would be forgiven for overlooking the pineapple buns at Milu in Flatiron. The sleek bowl spot peddles more seductive wares: soy-marinated chicken thighs, glistening cubes of chile-flecked brisket, and a spectacular $15.50 duck conceived by an ex-sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, the three-Michelin-starred venue famous for its own regal bird. Still, swinging by this counter-service restaurant without purchasing, photographing, and savoring one of these pastries, which rarely make an appearance outside of the city’s Chinatowns, would constitute a grave error.
Anyone familiar with a Hong Kong pineapple bun knows that it does not, by design, contain pineapple. The bolo bao, a staple of Chinese tea shops, takes the form of a doughnut-sized round of milk bread; bakers crown the top with a golden, sugary crust to evoke the rough-hewn exterior of the namesake fruit. An initial glance at the Milu version reveals a pastry that is true to historical form, as does a preliminary bite, which yields a squirt of pastry cream — not an uncommon addition. Then you taste something unexpected: pineapple.
“It just kind of made sense to me. It’s called a pineapple bun; why don’t we put pineapple in it?” chef-owner Connie Chung told me during a phone interview, barely holding back a laugh that seemed to convey: This is so obvious. Her silken fruit curd adds a touch of tang to counterbalance the rich custard, and just a whisper of tropical fruit aroma. Not too long ago, the city went Cronut-crazy for a creative batch of crullers sold from a bakery just a few blocks away from Milu; Chung’s pineapple buns are no less majestic in their conception or execution. Pair one with a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea, distinguished by its tannins and restrained sweetness, for a grade-A breakfast.
“The duck won’t be crispy,” a counter worker told me when I inquired how well Milu’s food would travel. I was about to take a 60-minute train ride back to Long Island, and it was clear that the laws of thermodynamics were about to align against me.
Letting a roast duck leg sit inside a cardboard box for an hour — not dissimilar from asking a chef to pack up your omakase sushi in plastic to-go containers — isn’t something one would have considered in the Before Times. Milu certainly has the space for patrons to enjoy its composed dishes; the room boasts ample seating, with cushioned booths, handsome green tiling, giant windows overlooking Park Avenue, and, as is de rigueur, green vines hanging down from a shelf. But during our COVID-19 era, when indoor capacity is limited, infections are widespread, and local weather is too cold for outdoor dining, eating a fairly priced masterpiece a few minutes past its prime is far from a terrible outcome.
My duck, in any case, was still noticeably (if not exceedingly) crispy post-transit.
The six-week-old Milu, a restaurant that had the misfortune of opening during a pandemic, is a model of a fast-casual spot in the sense that its strong flavors and precise execution don’t feel like adaptations or concessions to the insipid world of modern American lunch bowls — even though bowls are precisely what Chung serves.
Those bowls are not cheap, nor should they be. Prices are about in line with what one might encounter at the spendy Tender Greens chain. The cauliflower bowl runs $11; Cantonese soy chicken is $12; Yunnan-style brisket is $14, while the Mandarin duck is $15.50. Bouncy wontons filled with an earthy mash of broccoli are $6.
Larger mains, by contrast, command sit-down-restaurant prices, with the brisket priced at $22 and the duck running $26. Heftier family-style meals are even spendier at $45 to $80. Perhaps fast casual isn’t the right term here; the phrase is a bit corporate jargon that often signals upscaleified fast food or bourgeois salads that few would confuse with the wares of a good restaurant or street vendor. Chung’s business partner, Vincent Chao, former director of business development at Daniel Humm’s Make It Nice group, wouldn’t necessarily disagree. “Fast casual is a loaded term,” he told Eater in October. “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.”
If Humm’s old counter-service spot, Made Nice, initially struggled because it served watered-down, second-rate riffs on more studied preparations at tonier establishments like the NoMad or Eleven Madison, Milu succeeds because it offers the type of ambitious composed plates that one would pay a few dollars more for at a dimly lit small-plates place.
Chung, who spent nearly a decade at Humm’s Make It Nice group, says Milu has no intention of closing if New York fully shutters indoor or outdoor dining — a real possibility as the city’s infection rate goes up while its hospital bed capacity creeps downward. The restaurant, she explains, was always geared toward an office-lunch crowd that relies on takeaway. “We’re gonna stay open and try to do our best and hope for the best,” Chung says.
Alas, even in an era when fast-casual venues function as safer alternatives to full-service eating, lunch crowds aren’t what they used to be. Chung, accordingly, has made adaptations. She pared down the menu before opening, scrapping a silken tofu dish as well as a chicken soup, a lovely creation that finally made it onto the menu last week as a special. The broth is studded with so much cilantro it almost turns the soup green, and tastes as much of the grassy herb as it does of wine and garlic. It’s far from rich, but it contains enough luscious oils to enrobe the tongue after a sip.
Chung had also planned to offer a duck-stuffed version of the pineapple bun, perhaps as a distant cousin of sorts to the char siu-stuffed iteration one might encounter at a Chinese bakery. She ended up dropping that preparation too, as serving it warm could’ve overwhelmed the venue’s streamlined kitchen. “I know it seems like nothing, but every little step counts,” she says. For now, we’ll just have to eat our duck and pastries separately, though Chung is toying around with the idea of filling her buns with passionfruit, mango, or even mint chocolate for the holiday season.
Here’s a quick primer on fine bowls and desserts at Milu:
Soy chicken: Skinless, boneless, sliced thigh meat that’s been marinated in soy and Shaoxing wine, then roasted with lovage, sugar, and chile flakes. The flavor is poultry to the power of 1,000; it’s like chicken that’s been fed chicken all its life, with notes of wine and salt. Try dipping the meat, which sports a handsome mahogany hue, into a neon green ginger scallion sauce for a wild allium kick.
Yunnan-style brisket: Stellar Chinese barbecue. The kitchen seasons the meat with ginger, honey, and star anise, then braises it, slices it into cubes, and sears it on the plancha. Each precious nugget exhibits crisp, burnished edges, while a mint-chile sauce laces the meat and rice with a bitter, fragrant aroma. This isn’t a Texas-style inquiry into atomic beefiness; this is a tart, fatty, complex meat salad that almost recalls a good Isan-style laab.
Sichuan cauliflower: A solid vegan option. Cooks rub the brassica with sesame chile sauce and sear it. The spice levels are low and the sauce is a touch watery, but the cauliflower does what it does best, providing a soft, citrus-y crunch. A stunner of a tofu salad, by contrast, brings a louder array of flavors and textures; sliced string beans, dill, and cilantro emit their distinct, verdant aromas, while julienne strips of soybean curd and vegan mayo add respective notes of meatiness and creaminess.
Mandarin duck: The reason why you’re here, a Gallic-leaning, red fowl riff on Hainanese chicken and rice. Chung confits the bird, slowly cooking it in its own fat, then crisps the skin on a griddle and serves it over duck-fat rice. The result is astonishingly delicious. The meat is soft and pleasantly gamy, while the skin, depending on the bite, is either firm and crunchy, wonderfully soggy with soft, buttery fats, or somewhere in between, like a layer of avian baklava. When things get too rich, take a bite of the rice, heavy on scallion flavor, or the small side of bright watercress and chile cucumbers. Also try dipping the duck in a homemade chile crisp (included, or $12 as a larger take-home jar) that’s distinctly nuttier than, say, the classic Lao Gan Ma brand.
Soft serve: The bright yellow dan tat variety expressly tastes like eggs — imagine an extra-yolky frozen custard — while the vaguely icier milk tea variety jolts the palate with the aroma and astringency of its namesake ingredient. Both are quite good at cooling one’s insides after a particularly rich meal.