Restaurant review: Rumor Mill's ambitions aren't always met

The Rumor Mill is a sweet little hideaway restaurant, tucked back in an alley just off Main Street in Ellicott City.

Matthew Milani opened his 30-seat restaurant in 2007 — its full name is The Rumor Mill Fusion Bar and Restaurant. The fusion refers not to Milani's cooking style but to the wide selection of house-infused vodkas and, to a lesser extent, rums featured at the restaurant. There are expected flavors like vanilla, pear and strawberry but plenty of left-field concoctions like soy sauce, cucumber, Thai chili and pickle.

We enjoyed our time at the bar, waiting for a table in the dining room, even though it was never fully clear why we had to wait at all. The friendly bartender working the evening we visited told us that most folks drink the infused vodkas over ice, but a cocktail menu lists a half-dozen creative cocktails featuring the infusions. Either way works, and you get the idea that a lot of pride and enthusiasm has gone into creating these infusions, which make a pleasing display behind the bar. We took a few snacks there, simply prepared edamame with smoked sea salt and a dish of olives warmed in an herbed olive oil.

There's also a smallish wine list, heavy on chardonnay and merlot, and an Asian-accented beer list that is meant to complement the Asian notes on Milani's menu, which is divided up efficiently into snacks (marinated olives, edamame and sweet potato fries), small plates ($7-$9) and shared plates ($8-$14).

The carpeted dining room is comfortable and cozy, a little too bright and a little squaresville. And there's a disconnect between the small-plates theme and the conservative dining space. But there's a more fundamental disconnect between the menu's ambitions and the actual results.

That's a shame, because I have run into few chefs as eager to please as Milani, who paid a pleasant visit to our table and who appears absolutely in earnest about his restaurant's mission. It would be much easier to turn a buck in Ellicott City with pub grub. I admire Milani for sticking to his guns.

But I find myself without a single dish to lavish praise on. A duck dish came very close: This was a simply presented dish of cardamom-infused sous-vide duck breast, thinly sliced, served with brined cherries and pomegranate oil. If it suffered from anything, it was being in such uninspired company.

Dumplings, filled with crab meat and Old Bay-Dijon goat cheese, are eagerly recommended, but they're very ordinary, innocuous and bland. The crab flavor gets smothered in the cheese, and the shells are too hard to absorb much flavor from a soy dipping sauce. A good-sounding dish, salmon sauteed in vanilla butter over roasted-garlic white beans and diced tomatoes, didn't come across either. The flavors were hard to detect and sort out; somehow the beans tasted more of vanilla than the salmon, and the salmon itself had very little flavor.

We tried three shared plates: the glazed ribs; the terrine of tuna tartare and guacamole; and the Kobe sliders. The ribs were simply not good ribs, tough and gristly, which makes assessing the teriyaki-barbecue glaze a moot point. It could have been just rotten luck.

The sliders, served on potato rolls, are under-seasoned, and caramelized onions and Guinness mustard don't add enough flavor or drama. The tuna/guacamole terrine is a close call. I think a more vigorous dose of soy vinaigrette would brighten up its flavors, and it needs a more freshly considered accompaniment than tortilla chips.

One of the house's calling cards are the four infused ketchups that are served with the house fries. These infusions change each week; we had chocolate, lychee, pickle and one I can't remember. It's a cute idea that doesn't quite come off. This is partly a problem of visuals — the ketchups all look pretty much alike (our server wasn't entirely sure which was which), and partly a problem with the fries themselves, which are rather run-of-the-mill.

There are a handful of dessert selections, including a homemade ice cream trio, a warm pear tart with green tea ice cream, and a cafe mocha bread pudding with Bailey's ice cream and caramel drizzle. The trio of ice creams — ginger, marshmallow and black cherry — was the evening's success. It's the one time where ambition met results. The bread pudding was too dense.

It's no fun not loving the food in a chef-driven restaurant. But it pretty much comes down to that. The mistake would be in writing off the Rumor Mill, or in not tasting Milano's food yourself. Nothing's very expensive. A few dishes featuring asparagus weren't available when we visited — a warm asparagus and green bean salad, a curry tempura asparagus with romanesco sauce.

At the very least, there's a raisin-honey vodka on the rocks with your name on it.

The Rumor Mill

Where: 8069 Tiber Alley, Ellicott City

Contact: 410-461-0041 ,

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday and for lunch Thursday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$10 Entrees, $8-$15

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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