Food *** (3 stars)
Service *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
At nighttime, the few blocks of North Charles Street in the Mount Vernon area have been a black hole for restaurants. Many have struggled to survive on lunch or bar business alone. Many have succumbed, including Cangialosi's, the Italian place that for merly occupied the space where Milton's Grill opened last October.
I have to admit, I didn't rush to have dinner there. It's depressing to be the only customers in the place; and if I happen not to have a good time, I feel as if my less-than-positive review is the last nail in the coffin.
None of which, it turns out, ap plies to Milton's Grill. On a chilly, rainy March weeknight, the place was surprisingly lively, with every seat at the bar taken and a steady stream of customers for the booths in back of the long, narrow dining room and the tables in front. The place wasn't packed, but it wasn't hurting for business either.
It was an interesting mix of young and old, black and white, suburbanites and urbanites, all with one thing in common: a de sire for decent barbecue, unfussy food, rock-bottom prices and pleas ant folks doing the serving. The place could not be more low-key.
I'd suggest two things to improve the ambience. Get out the carpet sweeper. And get rid of the vanilla-scented candles at each table. That's one of the first rules of can dles: no scented ones around where you're eating (unless you want your ribs to taste like vanilla).
Actually that wasn't a concern, because the kitchen was out of ribs. Not something I'd expect at a place that specializes in barbecue, but there is plenty else to order. Milton's isn't a barbecue joint per se, but a traditional American res taurant with an emphasis on barbecued meats.
If barbecue isn't your thing, there's a crab cake dinner, de scribed as a "coastal classic with a Baltimore twist." When a friend asked what the Baltimore twist was, it turned out to be Old Bay.
This isn't a place where I'd nor mally order seafood, but Charles Street Salmon is one of the restau rant's signature dishes. The small fillet is marinated in pineapple juice, bourbon and brown sugar. Its faint sweetness was pleasant, and I loved how fresh the fish was, but it had been grilled longer than it needed to be. That wasn't a problem with the juicy half a roast chicken or the excellent chopped pork, both served with the same barbecue sauce. The pork comes over those thick slices of bread known as Texas toast.
Milton's Grill isn't one of those barbecue joints that goes on and on about the authenticity of its sauces and methods of cooking. It just serves up large portions of well-cooked meats with a sweet but not too sweet red sauce and several homemade sides.
The most extravagant thing on the menu is the 14-ounce black ened Cajun rib eye for $17.50 - a good-looking piece of steak, cooked just as ordered. Be warned, though. Its spice rub is so potent it will bring tears to your eyes.
Dinners come with a choice of two sides. I recommend the Mil ton's Mega Sweet Potato, a special ty. (Specialties are starred.) It's an enormous golden treat, soft and hot inside. There was also a re spectable vegetable mix and rice cooked with peas, mushrooms and onion. But I'd probably stick to the homemade cole slaw and potato salad, and avoid the baked beans, which came to the table looking more like mushy refried beans.
First courses are mostly bar food, although there's an excel lent pulled pork quesadilla, which could be dreadful but - dare I say it? - the kitchen pulls it off. You can get grilled shrimp or mussels, but probably the wings are the safest choice; the shrimp had a good flavor but were a bit dry.
The most inventive choice of starters is the Inside Out Chicken Pot Pie Soup, with chicken and vegetables in a cream-style soup that isn't much more liquid than the sauce that usually comes with chicken pot pie. It has a home made piecrust on top. How you feel about this soup depends on how you feel about starting your meal with a chicken pot pie, be cause that's what it is.
Desserts run along the choco late cake, ice cream and cheese cake lines and aren't made in-house. If you have much room left for them, you're a better man or woman than we were.
It's hard to judge from just one visit, but it looks as if Milton's might be around a while. After dinner, we passed a couple of oth er restaurants on our way to our car, and their dining rooms look ed pretty empty. Milton's must be doing something right.
336 N. Charles St., Baltimore
Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Appetizers, $5.25-$7.95; entrees, $10.95-$17.50.
443-220-0180[Outstanding: Good: Fair or Uneven: Poor: