I had waited years to go to The Milton Inn. It's one of those venerable places that crops up in almost every conversation about the area's best restaurants -- best special occasion, fancy, expensive restaurants, that is. And with its name are always accolades about beautiful atmosphere, exquisite food, memorable evenings.
So, I went recently -- with a reservation made three weeks in advance -- with great anticipation.
I think it was too much anticipation. This was clearly a case of getting there being at least half the fun.
Don't get me wrong. The Milton Inn is a fine restaurant in a beautiful old stone house on York Road north of Hunt Valley. The gardens are well-tended, the dining rooms gracious, the service professional, the food innovative. And yet, it wasn't a take-your-breath-away experience.
We were seated promptly at a nice table at the rear of the largest dining room, which accommodates a dozen tables. The small bouquets of fresh flowers looked as if they had been lovingly picked from the garden. The candles flickered ever more brightly as the sun faded from the large front windows and, in the dim light, the floral trim on the exquisite china repeated the rose and pink in the walls.
The menu at the Milton Inn is small, but interesting, with the emphasis on seasonal Maryland cuisine. There were soft-shell crabs, "York County" tomatoes and Eastern Shore corn among the offerings.
Most descriptions were surprising, with an unexpected ingredient or method of preparation in almost every entree. The only chicken dish, for instance, was pan-fried rather than grilled or broiled. Mangoes and curry were among the accompaniments for the scallops -- a blend that was beyond my imagination, and interest.
I could not, however, resist the "crab hash" which was served with the pan-fried rockfish. Crab and hash? They seemed like strange plate-mates.
But, first, I enjoyed chilled seafood gazpacho ($7.50). Here again a thrust toward the unusual -- bathed in the traditional chilled tomato broth were shrimp, scallops and crab. The shellfish were beautifully tender; the broth thick but mild and creamy. The soup didn't have the usual kick of this Spanish favorite, but, with the seafood, I didn't miss the tang. Across the bowl lay a large oval "crouton" that looked as if it had been cut from the rolls we had VTC been served. Both the rolls and the crouton were delicious.
My husband started with a spinach salad ($7), but no ordinary spinach salad. You'd have to love strong cheese to appreciate this salad. The warm Gorgonzola was overpowering. Without the cheese, the salad was a pleasantly dressed mixture of spinach, egg, bacon and mushrooms with pecans fanned out around it. The pecans were the only ingredient that could stand up to the cheese.
And now to that crab hash. The full description of the dish was "pan-fried rockfish on crab hash surrounded by Delmarva salsa" ($21.50). The two thick rockfish filets were wonderfully moist, yet firm. They lay atop this hash, an indifferent mixture of potatoes and other vegetables with bits of crab. The spicy salsa surrounded the "hash" and occasionally mixed with it, providing a nice variety of flavors.
My husband's seared medallions of lamb ($23.75) were wonderful -- juicy, tender and flavorful. The large pieces were fanned out, with roasted potatoes and tiny, tasteless green beans, spoke-like around a hub of garlic custard, which was surprisingly bland though able to provide a foil for the naturally strong flavor of lamb. It was a beautiful dish.
For dessert we chose chocolate-strawberry shortcake ($6) and peaches and cream tart ($5.75). Both were luscious.
The shortcake tasted as if it was part chocolate macaroon and part brownie; it was split in half and filled with whipped cream and strawberries. Again, unusual, and wonderful.
The tart had a ground-nut crust, topped with a thin layer of cream cheese and peach slices. It was a delight for any peach lover, though the serving was small.
And that can be said about most of the courses. In size, they were far from lavish. There was the same sort of restraint in the service. Our waitress was knowledgeable and efficient, and the meal was well-paced. But there wasn't much warmth to her manner.
Our bill, including two cocktails, two coffees and a bottle of excellent sauvignon blanc ($20), was just under $110. The food and service had been good, but not great. The Milton Inn fell short of my expectations.
The dining room stayed nearly full all evening and, oddly enough, grew louder as several boisterous groups settled in. They seemed out of place in such a refined atmosphere, which, otherwise, would have been a pleasant place to linger.
The Milton Inn 14833 York Road Sparks
(410) 771-4366 Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 8 p.m.
Reservations: Necessary. Two weeks in advance for Saturday night.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.