New location, new prices, new life Restaurant: Old Milton Inn's operators move to Fells Point and open Hamilton's.

January 11, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The move to the city has been good for the former operators of the Milton Inn in Sparks. After the restaurant closed its doors temporarily last September, executive chef Robert Taylor and restaurant manager Lynn Patrick brought most of their staff with them to a new location in the Admiral Fell Inn. They left an establishment that had a national reputation but was a little, well, stuffy. Being a Destination Restaurant is serious business. Their new venture, Hamilton's, is low-key in comparison, a little jazzier and -- what a pleasant surprise -- not so pricey.

Hamilton's more casual feel may have been forced on them by circumstance. This is the dining room of a hotel in Fells Point. Not every guest is going to be dressed to the nines or willing to pay the former Milton Inn's flat rate of $28 for entrees.

But chef Taylor is rising to the occasion, with good and handsomely presented food -- very contemporary American and more fun than I remember. The seasonal menu is weighted toward meat this time of year, notably steaks, venison and pork.

There are also seafood choices, like the fat, wonderfully fresh fillet of grouper crusted with sesame seeds, surrounded by a celadon-green sauce (more about it later) and decorated prettily with pomegranate seeds. The grouper comes with a fennel-wheatberry pilaf -- eating here can be a lesson in native grains -- and spaghetti squash.

As for the meats, I'd be hard pressed to choose between the grilled pork loin and the braised lamb shank. The pork is pearly white, juicy and tender. A balsamic vinegar glaze gives it a pleasant sweetness; and carrots, sugar snap peas and portobello mushrooms add lively color. The lamb shank, on a bed of risotto and a dark, winey sauce fragrant with mint, explodes with flavor. Fried onion rings hang jauntily from the shank bone.

Even the most mundane-sounding dishes surprise and delight. The "seasonal garnishes" with a trio of smoked fish turn out to be a bit of superb, sharply seasoned potato salad, caviar wrapped in tissue-thin slices of cucumber and chopped papaya. The fish itself is excellent -- the salmon, tuna and trout all retaining their individuality through their smoky flavor.

Pumpkin soup garnished with rock shrimp is surprisingly delicate for something so rich with cream, and the flavor of pumpkin is very subtle. The shrimp are almost beside the point, although they don't hurt.

A sharply flavorful veal and venison pate is one of the best I've tasted in recent memory, and having pear compote as a counterpoint is a stroke of genius.

Even the light, crisp-crusted rolls served with sweet butter are noteworthy. The engaging wine list is seasonal, so it can mirror the changing menu. And "engaging" describes the warm and professional servers who wait on us as well.

So is there anything not to like? I'm reduced to nitpicking: The pale green sauce with the grouper is "sugar snap pea juice," according to the menu. That strikes me as silly.

The kitchen turns out several fabulous and complicated dinners, but something as simple as the fried onion rings on the lamb shank are soggy.

My first cup of coffee is strong and bitter. I try again and the second is wonderful.

Desserts are fascinating but flawed. Banana bread pudding tastes so much like banana bread you wonder why anyone bothers making it into pudding, putting it into a phyllo shell, and adding homemade ice cream and praline sauce. A wonderful butter cake with dried cranberry compote could use a bit less Grand Marnier. Macadamia brittle torte with a gingersnap crust covered with chocolate ganache is good but not as spectacular as you might think, given the ingredients.

Oh, well. These are all quibbles. The important point is that Hamilton's is even better than the former Milton Inn, which had gotten a bit staid in its role as Very Important Restaurant.

Hamilton's

Where: 888 S. Broadway

Hours: Open every day for dinner; prearranged private lunches for parties of 15 or more

Prices: Appetizers, $5.75-$7.50; entrees, $16-$25; major credit cards

Call: 410-522-2195

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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