The Milton Inn, which reopened quietly a couple of months ago under new ownership, has long been Baltimore's favorite destination restaurant. The place has had its ups and downs, but people have always been willing to take a drive to eat in the lovely candlelighted rooms of this 18th-century fieldstone building.
The new owners, the Country Fare Group of Restaurants (which also operates the Brass Elephant and Kings Contrivance), should have no trouble attracting customers on weekends, on special occasions, and even for business lunches.
But how do you fill the seats weeknight after weeknight? History, romance and elegant food have never come cheap. And there's not a ready customer base in the immediate neighborhood. In fact, there's not much of an immediate neighborhood -- that's part of the Milton Inn's charm.
Perhaps the most obvious answer greets you at the door. Maitre d' Todd Meginness, executive chef Brian Boston and the rest of the staff are to a man (and woman) young, energetic, enthusiastic and quite glad to have you there. There's none of the superciliousness you might expect at a restaurant so weighted down with history and a reputation for haute cuisine.
There's more to like. The renovation of the dining rooms is very appealing. They look fresh and inviting, but not too new. Just the period air you want with none of the inconveniences -- no shabby carpets or cranky plumbing here.
And while this is still a restaurant that prides itself on haute cuisine, if you aren't up for, say, aiguillette of duck, you will also find some old favorites on the menu. Maryland crab soup. Clams casino. Crab cakes. Grilled fillet of beef. Caesar salad.
This is a good idea. While I don't quite see the point of coming to a restaurant like the Milton Inn for Maryland crab soup, I'm probably in the minority. We sampled several of these old favorites: crab soup with enormous lumps of crab meat; eight fat clams casino instead of the usual six; plump broiled crab cakes. They are all competently done, but my sense is that chef Boston would rather be cooking venison noisettes.
This is the sort of dish that showcases his talents. The tender, full-flavored slices of meat luxuriate in their dark, velvety sauce, which has just a hint of sweetness. Polenta "porridge" offers a smooth contrast, while wilted mustard greens add plenty of texture and bite.
You could begin with lumps of lobster and inky black pasta in a bit of sweet vanilla sauce, a startling and luxurious interplay of flavors that somehow works. Or try the delicate lamb carpaccio, seared but still almost raw, with greens and a tangy balsamic vinegar sauce.
Specials might include, if you're lucky, a superb blackened rockfish with a shellfish etoufee as a sauce, dark and rich and spicy. A gorgeous veal chop was so fat and flavorful it didn't really need its Oscar treatment -- but who can resist lump crab meat, fresh asparagus and a silky bearnaise, even if they are overkill?
The new Milton Inn's wine list isn't extensive, but it complements the menu well in both scope and price. Those who want wine by the glass will also be happy with the selection.
And then on to dessert. Perhaps working on the theory that no one really wants a light dessert for a special-occasion dinner, the pastry chef has made each more intensely indulgent than the last.
We had a couple of wonderful chocolate concoctions and a less wonderful apricot almond tart, put in the shade by the delicate bit of ginger ice cream that came with it.
But the dessert I was most impressed with was the Milton Inn's creme brulee, a model of its kind -- the creamy chilled custard a seductive contrast to its crackly caramelized sugar topping. This classic seems to be the hottest dessert on restaurant menus these days -- don't ask me why -- so recently I've been sampling a lot of them. And you thought my job was no fun.
Where: 14833 York Road, Sparks
Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner every day
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$65 (beluga caviar); entrees, $18-$28; major credit cards
Pub Date: 2/15/98