Milan an intriguing destination

The food sometimes overreaches, but the restaurant is fun and lovely

May 07, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Milan is a restaurant. There had been some doubt, you see, or at least some intimations that Milan was not really a restaurant but a trendy or psychedelic nightclub fronting as one.

That's simplifying things, because there were other complaints voiced leading up to a recent hearing of the Baltimore City Liquor License Board. I can't tell you what happens at Milan after 10 o'clock, or on the weekends — it could be anything from "Eyes Wide Shut" to contract bridge. But early on a weeknight, there are on both of its floors things like tables and chairs and menus. Also there is someone who comes to your table, takes your order to a kitchen and returns with plates of food.

Milan opened a few months ago in the old Luigi Petti space on the southern edge of Little Italy. In hindsight, Milan brought at least some of the immediate scorn upon itself. Listing menu prices in euros as well as dollars, I thought, was innocuous, as much a graphic design choice as anything. But promoting your core concept as "food meets fashion" is goofball, and the sugar-smack ingredients in any one of Milan's "fashion martinis" are an insult both to the designers they're named for and to the art of the martini. I believe that Milan should be as fashionable as it wants to be. It's just never in fashion to say that you are.

This preening made Milan seem silly, which is too bad, because it's actually not a bad place. It's swell-looking but not aggressively so. Photographs don't convey how comfortable it feels here, or how lovely the view of Little Italy rooftops is through the expansive second-story windows. It's not that you're compelled to dress up for Milan; it's that you'll want to. I found the staff on the whole to be welcoming, down-to-earth and accommodating, at least as much if not more so than any number of restaurants in town. The woman who waited on us was a particular delight, prepared and happy to offer opinions and guidance when asked to.

The food tries hard, but you can almost feel competing interests at play. Before the dinner menu is a listing of "sushi Italiano," which consists first of crudo, raw fish dressed with different oils and salts, and then, a variety of specialty rolls filled with seafood and vegetables. Done just right, they're the kind of sexy food that would be just right for Milan. But they weren't quite working when we visited, and my hunch was that whoever produces them regularly wasn't there that night. For instance, a crudo serving of yellowfin tuna is meant to be dressed with red pepper oil and sea salt. I think it just wasn't done. We tried two rolls, one with crab meat, asparagus and smoked paprika mayonnaise, the other with lobster, shrimp and a remoulade sauce — to succeed, they need to be precise and gorgeous, and these were not. I found them to be overproduced, a bit fussy.

Appetizers were better. A richly satisfying lobster mac and cheese was generously portioned, making good use of a smoked gouda bechamel and a delicately placed topping of pistachio-lemon gremolata. And a wittily conceived leaning tower of polenta, stacked with fresh sausage, basil oil and a red pepper ricotta pesto, was both attractive and satisfying. But a Devil's Caesar salad, named for its accompanying deviled egg, was a hot mess, constructed inexplicably with mixed greens instead of baby romaine and coated with a ranch-tasting glue. White anchovies are a nice addition, but not beefsteak tomatoes.

The entrees here are pricey and tend to have the kind of richness and starch associated with conventioneers and business travelers. There are potatoes everywhere. The best bet is probably a relatively simple filet mignon, topped with gorgonzola butter and served with finely chopped asparagus and fingerling potatoes. An ambitious Chilean sea bass was less successful. It tried to do a lot, but not much came through, not the smoked-paprika dusting and not the watercress cream sauce. Part of this was the general lighting scheme at Milan, which is very flattering for faces but not for the food, which is hard to make out. Colors and textures get smeared together, something that helped to sabotage a potentially impressive deconstructed ravioli. It just looked, and tasted, like a pile of stuff — lobster, pasta, shrimp, cream, more pasta and pink sauce.

The best thing I had was a perfectly nice flatbread pizza topped with roma sausage, pepperoni and ricotta salata. It was spicy and satisfying, and priced reasonably. Dessert runs to tiramisu, creme brulee and gelato. The hazelnut butter layered in the chocolate torte is dreamy.

The food is expensive, seldom truly innovative, and somewhat unsuccessful when it really tries to be. Still, I like the place. We were treated nicely. I liked the music and the candles and I liked the white sofas on the side patio. I'd take a date here, I think.

Milan

Where: 1000 Eastern Ave.

Contact: 410-685-6111, onemilan.com

Hours: Open for dinner daily

Appetizers: $7-$14

Entrees: $16-$42

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Ratings key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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