Expectations Are High, But Inn Is Up To The Task

DINING OUT

January 08, 1995|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. Appetizers, $8.75; main courses, $27; prix fixe, $50. ***

The good news/bad news take on the Milton Inn:

Several months after it lost its chef, Mark Henry, the Milton Inn is still one of the area's best restaurants.

Unfortunately, you have to sell your firstborn to pay for dinner here.

Now I know that if you have to ask how much dinner at the Milton Inn costs, you can't afford it, so it's really beside the point that all the main courses are priced at $27. But aren't you staggered that on a cold, rainy midweek night a restaurant that charges $27 for every entree was packed? A restaurant out in the middle of nowhere?

I was.

The reason is obvious. Mark Henry or no Mark Henry, the Milton Inn has made a name for itself as one of the two or three top special-occasion restaurants in the area. The long drive out to the old fieldstone inn (parts of it are almost 250 years old) simply makes the destination all the more welcome when you get there. What's waiting for you is handsomely appointed dining rooms with working fireplaces, excellent food, superb but restrained service, an outstanding wine list.

For a special anniversary, a client you're wooing, or dinner when the boss is paying, what does it matter that your one glass of champagne costs $9?

Still, it does mean that your expectations are very, very high. And for the most part, the Milton Inn delivers.

Here's the absolute worst I can say about the service: The extra wineglasses weren't removed as soon as they should have been, and it would have been nice to have gotten bread with our drinks.

Other than that, the highest compliment I can pay any waiter goes to ours. I couldn't tell you what his name was or what he looked like. All I know is that the food arrived smoothly and even more quickly than I might have expected (but we were never in any way rushed).

The menu changes every couple of weeks, but not too radically. This is regional American cuisine, season-appropriate and one that makes good use of local ingredients.

Dinner begins with one tiny canape, a puff pastry tartlet shell filled with a dice of duck meat and a swirl of mango-flavored mayonnaise. A delicious bite that disappears at the bat of an eyelash.

It's followed quite promptly by first courses. For me, thin slices of lamb loin, smoky flavored but still pink, in a bit of bordelaise sauce. They're arranged around a tiny timbale of chili-flavored lentils. Unconventional and charming.

Four enormous shrimp flavored discreetly with a spicy, buttery sauce are skewered and placed on a bed of wilted greens and cellophane noodles. Delicious, but even better is a golden-crusted cake made of lobster meat, crab and corn with a smidgen of tomato-tinged butter sauce.

Salads follow; you choose from four on the menu. A "Late Harvest" julienne of pear, celeriac and apple with vinaigrette doesn't taste quite as good as it sounds, although ruby-bright pomegranate seeds and walnuts jazz it up.

Nothing is simple here, but the intricacy of concoctions like a salad with Euromix lettuces and sun-dried tomatoes and smoked portobello mushrooms and pine nuts and shaved Romano works beautifully. Or try a salad Eleanora in which Belgian endive, watercress, hearts of palm, mushrooms and thin slices of apple are tossed with a lovely, creamy dressing.

The best of our main courses stars an absolutely gorgeous veal chop, huge and pink and bursting with juicy flavor. The supporting cast includes an aromatic medley of dried beans such as fava and kidney, sauteed chanterelle mushrooms and the Milton Inn's take on fried onion rings -- batter-fried pearl onions (absurd but appealing).

Tender angel-hair pasta is the bed for rockfish fillets (fresh but a bit overcooked), fat little oysters and bright green broccoli florets in an ambrosial cream flavored with white wine. You have to restrain yourself from lapping up this sauce like a cat.

Least interesting is pan-fried breast of pheasant, which reminds me of nothing so much as several slices of a fried chicken breast on a pool of winy sauce. The leg meat is ground and formed into delicate quenelles, which are so garlicky you can taste nothing else.

Desserts are sensational. An individual savarin, feather-light, is soaked in a wonderful citrusy sauce and filled with a bit of lemon curd and a swirl of whipped cream. Pumpkin and mascarpone flan manages to be both light and decadently creamy-rich at the same time. A chocolate truffle cheesecake is breathtakingly sensuous. If all these sound like a bit much, there are usually fresh berries -- blackberries, strawberries, raspberries -- that can be had with cream or ice cream.

So all is not lost now that Mark Henry is gone. Much of the Milton Inn's menu is familiar in tone if not content: Stan Levy, his worthy successor in the kitchen, has kept the emphasis on fresh and imaginative ways to use good regional ingredients. Not everything works perfectly, but dinner here is still a memorable experience.

Next: Maithai

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