Almost Everything Appeals

DINING OUT

April 18, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Milton Inn, 14833 York Road, Sparks, (410) 771-4366. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch and dinner, Saturdays and Sundays for dinner only. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $7.75-$8.75; main courses, $19.50-$23.50.

When the waiter describes an entree at the Milton Inn he doesn't say it contains mushrooms, he calls them "U.S. mushrooms." That's to differentiate them from the wild mushrooms and the ZTC enoki mushrooms and the shiitake mushrooms and the porcini mushrooms, all of which appear in one dish or another.

It's a testimony to chef Mark Henry's skill that in spite of the trendy ingredients he uses -- from quinoa to grapeseed oil -- people don't think of the Milton Inn as having cutting-edge food. It has wonderful food is what people say, maybe the best food in the Baltimore area. In acknowledgment of that fact, Mr. Henry appeared recently on Esquire magazine's list of best young chefs in America -- the latest recognition of many.

Long before Mr. Henry arrived, the Milton Inn was considered one of the area's most romantic getaways: a winding ride out in the country, a rambling old stone house by the side of the road (parts of it are 240 years old), intimate dining spaces with working fireplaces, a pretty terrace for outdoor dining in the summer.

I had my first dinner at the Milton Inn many years ago. The details are hazy after all this time, but I remember one thing vividly: The expensive meal ended with a dessert crepe filled with canned fruit cocktail. You can imagine how pleased those of us who love good food -- and country inns -- were when Mr. Henry took over the kitchen.

The menu is small and changes frequently. Almost everything on it appeals; the dishes sound intriguing but not strange. Take a first course of wild rice and corn waffles -- small, feather-light and crisp, paired with deliciously fragile curls of smoked salmon. A swirl of creme fraiche with capers and shavings of fresh horseradish and capers adorn them.

Or start with three small, plump oysters, pan-fried with a crisp exterior. They're elaborately arranged on a bed of spaghetti squash, slivered leeks and diced ham in silky cream -- a combination that's even better than it sounds.

The salad we tried was a bit less successful -- a combination of Comice pear slices, good greens, goat cheese, orange segments, walnuts and enoki mushrooms tossed with an unassuming vinaigrette. It would have been better with one or two fewer ingredients -- minus the orange segments, perhaps.

From our experience, you'll do best ordering the more unusual offerings. One of us had grilled beef tenderloin and found that the rest of the dish outshone the meat. It was good but not spectacular beef (which one could argue it should be for $23). The suave, wine-dark sauce complemented it beautifully; agnolotti filled with porcini were lovely, tender little pillows; and emerald-green sugar snap peas were fresh-tasting, sweet and crisp.

But the dish didn't compare to the special that evening: a thick tuna fillet, fresh and flavorful. It was pan-fried with a crust of black and white sesame seeds, placed on a bed of tender angel-hair pasta and bathed in a mustard-sparked butter sauce. The dish's only flaw was the sauteed leeks, which were quite bitter. (Later, I noticed, customers got broccoli instead.)

Tender boneless breast of pheasant is sliced and prettily arranged with forcemeat of the leg in flaky phyllo pastry and an elegant wine sauce. And if none of these appeals, the seasonal menu offers lamb, pork, veal, sweetbreads, a whole baby chicken and three seafood dishes.

My first choice for dessert would be the fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and black raspberries, with or without cream. I got them in a napoleon with whipped cream and a bit of pastry cream. There was too much puff pastry and too little berries and cream for my taste. In fact, none of our desserts quite reached the heights of the rest of our meal. A chocolate turtle truffle torte was basically chocolate ganache with caramel -- a little went a long way after our rich meal. And an apple and dried cherry crisp turned out to be surprisingly ordinary.

All in all, though, a fine meal. The menu is complemented by a small but satisfying wine list, with some surprisingly affordable choices and an excellent selection of wines by the glass. As for atmosphere, if you like candlelight dinners, firelight and period appointments, there's nowhere better in the area to celebrate an occasion or impress someone important. Or for that matter just to enjoy good food.

The biggest problem with the Milton Inn now is that it's been discovered. You may have to wait weeks for a reservation on a Saturday night, and even on a weekday you may be competing for the kitchen's attention with large parties. (There were three the Tuesday night we were there.) That meant courses were slow appearing, even for this kind of carefully paced dinner.

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