Prix fixe menu offers a taste of Milton Inn

Restaurant Review

Palate

May 14, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Spring may be the best time of year to visit the Milton Inn, Baltimore's favorite destination restaurant. The front dining room of the mid-18th-century fieldstone house has large windows on two sides and is filled with light as the sun sets. The apple-green walls and handsome period furnishings of this pretty room look their best this time of year. Its well-spaced tables beckon, set with white linen, sparkling stemware and fresh flowers. The effect is fresh and appealing.

So why does the hostess walk us past this lovely, mostly empty room and try to seat us in the back dining room, which is windowless, so dark someone at the table next to us has borrowed our candle to read his menu, and crammed full of other diners?

Faithful readers know before I say anything more that I'm going to be a pain in the neck about this. There seems to be some sort of staffing problem that isn't immediately clear to me; but for the amount of money we're going to be spending, I want a nice table by the windows.

After a false start (she tries to put us in the back of the front room so a server from the back room can wait on us), the hostess gets it right. We're happy at our new table, but no one has told our new server she'll be waiting on us. It takes her about 15 minutes or so to catch on when no one else comes to take our drink order.

The next thing we know she's brought us our drinks and a pretty little apology: artfully arranged small plates holding one fat pink shrimp and two enormous lumps of crab in a drizzle of silky sauce, with a little greenery and ruby-red chopped tomato for garnish. From then on the evening proceeds smoothly.

And that's a good thing, because for these prices one should get excellent service. In fact, I would say the Milton Inn has priced itself out of anything but the special occasion and expense account market, except for its fine early-bird special. Of course, it's not called anything so declasse. Ask for the Chef's Tasting Menu, three courses for $36 (available through a 7 p.m. seating).

What I like about the prix fixe is that there's a lot of overlap with the regular menu. The filet mignon isn't the 8-ounce hunk of beef found on the regular menu, but tenderloin tips, smaller but just as flavorful, with pretty accompaniments of potatoes whipped with Boursin and miniature vegetables.

Some of the restaurant's most successful dishes are on both menus. Foie gras terrine, silky and rich, makes a seductive statement against the sharp flavors of artichoke hearts, fennel, and pickled pearl onions.

The gazpacho, a muted version of this classic that lets the flavor of the fresh vegetables come through, is another possibility, although the prix fixe soup probably doesn't have quite so many fat lumps of crab as ours off the regular menu.

Since I was there last, eight years ago, the Milton Inn has made another change besides the prix fixe to lure a wider audience. Noting the popularity of upscale steakhouses (well, who could miss it?), the restaurant has reinvented itself as one -- sort of. There's a separate menu of steaks, including an 18-ounce porterhouse, with everything else on the page a la carte.

Still, I imagine steakhouse fare isn't where executive chef and co-owner Brian Boston's heart is. You can tell he'd rather be creating dishes like lobster medallions with squid ink pasta in vanilla sauce, a bold combination that I remember liking, but now tastes much too sweet.

The most successful dishes have mainstream appeal, with some extra spark that makes them worth coming back for. The Milton Inn's fried oysters are as good as you'll find anywhere. Adding heirloom tomatoes, smoked corn relish and remoulade to the plate keeps the homey theme but elevates the dish to unexpected heights.

A seafood combination in cream sauce sounds bland but ends up being terrific. First of all, it's a handsome dish, with mussels on their black half shells and pink-tinged lobster and shrimp, along with lump crab and rockfish fillet. The flavors are clean and lively, and the delicate, dill-infused cream ties them together. A mushroom risotto lends quiet support.

Sometimes there are almost too many flavors competing for attention. Slices of pork loin are wrapped around a crawfish and leek stuffing, then wrapped in bacon with a creamy truffle sauce. Andouille sausage and shallots also have a presence. If the ingredients weren't all so good, it wouldn't work. Luckily the sides are kept simple: spinach and roast potatoes.

The Milton Inn offers two desserts that have to be ordered in advance: an apple crisp made with Granny Smith apples and a chocolate bread pudding. There's no downside to desserts straight from the oven, especially when they come with ice cream, creme anglaise, ganache and various other sauces; but I enjoy the tiramisu with the prix fixe just as much, and the cakes from the pastry tray are also spectacular and not so pricey.

The Milton Inn has what you need in a destination restaurant: a romantic setting, a menu with broad appeal, amiable service, and an approachable wine list that also offers bottles for connoisseurs to love and good choices by the glass. And with the addition of the Chef's Tasting Menu, you don't have to wait for your 25th anniversary to eat there.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

THE MILTON INN

Address: 14833 York Road, Sparks

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner; Saturday and Sunday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $12-$18; entrees: $25-$45

Call: 410-771-4366

FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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