Winning Combo: Bargain 'Favorites' And A New Chef

DINING OUT

June 11, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Morgan Millard, 4800 Roland Ave., (410) 889-0030. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $3.50-$6.95; entrees, $11.95-$18.95. ***

Last fall Randall Peck left the the hectic kitchen of the just-opened Donna's at the BMA to become the executive chef of Morgan Millard, the comparatively serene "restaurant gallery" in Roland Park.

Mr. Peck, a talented chef whose resume also includes a stint at Citronelle, has reworked the Morgan Millard menu so it now has a decidedly Southern feel. Restaurant owner Diane Blair calls it "Southern nouveau," which translates into "Let's not cook the vegetables as long as traditional Southern cooks do" and "Let's add a few Tex-Mex touches." Sorry. "Southwestern nouveau touches."

It's a menu that fits very well with the interior design of the restaurant, a sort of country nouveau look. Very chic, very pretty, and about as rustic as a Chanel suit.

The cozy dining rooms do have a corner cupboard or two, hurricane lamps in the windows and pine furniture. But the decor is highly designed, with a dark blue, maroon and blond color scheme. Paintings by local artists decorate the walls. If you like them, you can buy them, or you can shop in the gallery just inside the front door, which has ceramics from the Potters Guild and other artwork.

Roland Park has discovered that Mr. Peck can cook. Consequently, we waited for 20 minutes for a table on a Tuesday night -- even with reservations. (Management needs to work on that.) One reason for the restaurant's popularity is certainly the "Neighborhood Favorites" section of the menu, meals that cost $10 or less. These include a chicken dish or two, meatloaf, a couple of sandwiches.

But most people will end up spending considerably more than that. The appetizers are tempting. Dishes like barbecued duck breast and beef tenderloin with sweet potato fries will run the bill up considerably more than if you stick to the "Neighborhood Favorites." And the desserts are pretty irresistible, except to the most hardened dieter.

Grilled grit cakes may not sound like an exciting starter, but imagine polenta made in heaven. Soft and hot at the center, the rectangles had a crisp, char-grilled exterior; and the relish made of corn and sweet red peppers added a bright, fresh accent.

Less interesting were the "skillet mushrooms" our waitress recommended. The whole mushrooms had a sauce of red wine, scallions and so much garlic you could taste it the next day. None of the promised capers, however.

Sweet potato and leek soup was a thick, flavorful puree that would have been even better if it had been served hotter. The waitress brought us the soup of the day, black-eyed pea, by mistake. It sounded heavy but looked elegant and light -- maybe we should have kept it.

The best of our main courses were two "low country crab cakes,which by any other name would be classic Baltimore crab cakes. Packed with back fin and seasoned with a sure hand, these plump beauties had a tracery of pink mayonnaise under them, and were accompanied by an unusual apple-cabbage coleslaw and luscious chunks of an eggy, jalapeno-studded corn bread.

The down-home, upscale "cornmeal crusted chicken" was also a winner. The white meat was boned, then fried to crisp juiciness. The fillets, surrounded by a creamy gravy, lay on a bed of silken mashed potatoes heavily spiced with chili powder. Sauteed green beans and a decorative fried tortilla shell came on the side.

Morgan Millard serves a meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender braised lamb shank on a bed of red beans and tomatoes. Too bad its acorn squash wasn't equally well cooked -- the slices were almost crisp.

With dinners come salads -- lettuce prettily arranged with sliced mushrooms, tomatoes, grated carrots and cucumber. You get your choice of several good homemade dressings. There are also sensationally good rolls studded with chewy sunflower seeds that I remember from past visits.

If that sounds a bit too healthy for you, don't worry -- desserts, made by pastry chef Barry Knotts, are every bit as wicked as you could possibly want. Not that it would hurt to have just one fruit or otherwise lighter choice. Still, the fact that there aren't any may be because more virtuous selections never get chosen when there's the warm chocolate pecan pie with bourbon and fudge sauces, or red-ripe strawberries and clouds of whipped cream in puff pastry. Only the gingerbread was a dud -- it looked great, but it tasted gummy and undercooked.

Next: Turtle Bay Grill

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