A Pleasant Place, An Improving Kitchen

DINING OUT

October 17, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Morgan Millard Restaurant Gallery, 4800 Roland Ave., (410) 889-0030. AE, MC, V. Open every day for lunch and dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $2.50-$5.95; entrees, $8.95-$18.95. The old Morgan & Millard lunch counter was a hard act to follow. It was like the soda fountains of my youth, with good homemade soups and sandwiches and, of course, soda fountain treats -- real milkshakes and ice cream sodas. I've heard people refer to the Morg, as it was known, as a tearoom. Nonsense. It was a good, old-fashioned soda fountain with tables, attached to a pharmacy.

Morgan & Millard opened in 1906 in the country's first shopping ** center, the row of Tudor-style buildings designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. It closed a dozen years ago -- to be replaced by Morgan Millard, without the ampersand.

The new Morgan Millard was not only a restaurant, and a fairly fancy one at that, it was an art gallery, selling paintings, pottery and other handicrafts. It had a country feel to it, the way Mary Emmerling is country: WASPish and upscale and highly designed. Not all the Roland Park regulars were pleased. No longer could you sit at the counter and get a quick egg salad

sandwich on your lunch hour. Some of the food had sprouts in it, and everything seemed too pricey.

But people mellowed toward this very pleasant place, which attempted good, healthy, inventive American cuisine and often succeeded. Over the years, it seems to me, the kitchen has gotten better and more consistent. The food no longer seems overpriced, and the atmosphere is just the right balance of casualness and dressiness for most of us.

And there's a definite philosophy behind the food, one which coincides with my own. It goes something like this: If it's healthy and it tastes good, do it -- fresh vegetables, for instance, and sunflower seeds in the rolls. But don't make me eat butter substitute.

The setting is Roland Park, which often gets a bad rap for its preppiness. But Roland Park has responded to the ethnic influences of Morgan Millard's food -- the mahi-mahi on a flour tortilla with pineapple salsa, the jambalaya and the Mediterranean pasta. All consumed in the pretty nouveau country dining room, with its polished woods, dark blue and warm earth colors and flickering candlelight.

Sometimes it's just good ole American fare disguised as ethnic cuisine, like the best Buffalo wings I've had in a long time. They were plump and just spicy enough; at Morgan Millard they're known as grilled Basque wings with pineapple salsa. Served on a flour tortilla, they were particularly appealing with the slice of grilled fresh pineapple.

Morgan Millard has grilled shrimp served in a Spanish garlic sauce with grilled french bread. Delicious. And there's a Gorgonzola and woodland mushroom pate, which has a fine flavor (the cheese doesn't overwhelm the mushrooms) but an oddly mushy texture.

Salads are made with the freshest ingredients, including romaine and the usual raw vegetables -- not exciting, but nicely done. Both the creamy herb and the raspberry vinaigrette dressings are excellent; if you have to have a sweet dressing, there's the honey mustard. All are made in house.

By this time, if you've had a little wine and indulged in too many of the warm biscuit-rolls studded with sunflower seeds, you've had a pretty satisfying meal. But the main courses are yet to come.

The menu isn't long, but it's always augmented with handwritten daily specials. You don't have the waiter reciting a litany of dishes and ingredients, and you don't have to ask for the prices. From it we ordered grilled swordfish with avocado and crab, which must have sounded good to other customers as well because it was all gone. But the pan-fried fresh salmon with a crisp cornmeal crust was a worthy substitute. It was sparked with a bit of lemony mayonnaise and a spoonful of black caviar.

Tender slices of pork loin with wild mushrooms were pleasant, but somewhat overwhelmed by a rich, winy brown sauce. That was also the problem with the grilled boneless breast of chicken -- chicken Millard -- topped with brie and lemon butter sauce and almonds. Or so I thought, but the friend who ordered it didn't agree. Everyone liked the small roast potatoes and fresh green beans on the side.

With all the food that had come before, we watched the approach of the pastry tray with some trepidation. But we gamely ordered the two desserts made on the premises, a brownie and tiramisu. (There's a luscious-looking Derby pie on the tray as well. Homemade isn't always better.) But chocolate lovers will be happy with the fudgy richness of the brownie, and the tiramisu is appropriately light and deeply flavored with espresso.

# Next: Rusty Scupper

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