Restaurant review: Sparks still fly at the Milton Inn

We'll always have the Milton Inn.

The northern Baltimore County classic still delivers all of the tradition and perks diners want from a fine-dining, special-occasion restaurant. On any given night, the Milton Inn experience unfolds in six dining rooms within a meticulously kept 271-year-old fieldstone mansion. Regulars ask for the room known as The Hearth, the only one with a wood-burning fireplace. All but one of the other rooms have gas fireplaces.

The Main Dining Room, where we were seated, is just off the entrance, to the right. Renovated last spring, it conveys tradition and seriousness of purpose without a hint of stuffiness. The formally set tables are comfortably spaced, and the room is quiet enough for normal conversation without feeling oppressively hushed. Diners are free to laugh in here.

Over the past few years, the Milton Inn has seamlessly introduced options like a $45 chef's tasting menu for diners not ready to commit the necessary funds or attention to restaurant's full dinner menu, which is very expensive. The last time The Baltimore Sun visited the Milton Inn was soon after this innovation was introduced. This time, we went back to the Milton Inn's basics, which really aren't that basic. Somewhere along the way, there has also been a relaxing of the dress code, a mixed blessing.

In the genre of moss-covered country inn destination restaurants, the Milton Inn is something exceedingly rare: It's relevant. If you like dining in a beautiful room where you can get what you like, the Milton Inn is for you.

Sure, you'll have no trouble finding sturdy Eisenhower-era fare like oysters Rockefeller and grilled rib-eye of beef. And on the extensive a la carte listing of steaks and fish are Taft administration selections: Dover sole, twin lobster tails, and an 18-ounce porterhouse, to which you can add a 4-ounce crab cake for $12 or an Oscar preparation (lump crab meat and asparagus in a bearnaise sauce) for $16.

But look closer — there's a rack of venison with a chestnut-granola crust, a roasted Hudson Valley duck breast with pear gastrique and even a vegetarian entree of wild mushrooms with Grana Padano and fresh herbs in phyllo. Those are not the same old things.

Still, the enduringly great gift for diners at the Milton Inn lies in the execution of the classics. Not only is the smoked salmon appetizer served complete with classic accompaniments of toast points, chopped red onion, capers and horseradish cream, the luscious salmon is formed into pretty rosettes. Hence its name, Smoked Salmon Rose. A baby spinach salad with bacon dressing, chopped eggs and thinly sliced onions is so delightful because of its precise preparation. It surely was dressed moments before leaving the kitchen.

If the Milton Inn can reassure you with its drawing-room precision, it can also knock your socks off. When we visited, the kitchen was offering, as an appetizer, a pate of venison with figs, apricots and pistachio, gently set on a balsamic vinaigrette. If this is getting dangerously close to drama, the rack of venison entree takes things into fully staged opera. Served with a butternut squash risotto and roasted brussels sprouts, this is the Milton Inn exploring the wide open spaces of northern Baltimore County. And you wish a little for a pheasant or a quail.

The $58 shellfish sampler is as outre an entree as you're likely to find in a Maryland restaurant. Is it meant to be shared? Composed of clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, a lobster tail with drawn butter and a spinach risotto with shrimp, crabs and mussels in garlic butter sauce, it has all been sourced and managed confidently and presented with elan. An 18-ounce cowboy steak, served Oscar style, is likewise an effective combination of a flamboyant dish prepared with precise care.

We didn't need side dishes, but we ordered them. And they have been the meal's highlights — half of a roasted acorn squash that melted when you looked at it; the twice-baked and stuffed potatoes known here as Jack Tarr; and, a triumph of the Maryland culinary arts, white cheddar grits made with corn that the staff smokes on the premises.

Credit for both maintaining the tradition and expanding on it goes to Brian Boston, the executive chef and co-proprietor. Boston has kept his core audience happy while reaching out to new customers. The idea of a Baltimore County restaurant week was his, as is the restaurant's wine club, which offers wines at wholesale prices to its members.

As for the relaxed dress code, it works fine until it doesn't. It's nice not to have to dress up in your scratchy Sunday best. On the other hand, if you've been saving up for your golden anniversary, you don't want to be sitting next to people in sweatshirts or shorts.

Milton Inn doesn't seem capable of gaffes, but you might decide, as we did, that there is something intangible that's missing, something that makes a dinner into an evening. Some of this is pacing, which was a beat too fast. We didn't feel rushed, but some more breathing room between courses would be nice. The service on a recent weeknight was professional, knowledgeable about the menu and helpful in choosing a bottle from the Milton Inn's long list. But for the money involved, you might want the server to take more command of the table.

There's a single tacky thing at the Milton Inn, and it appears at the beginning and at the end. It's the tiered dessert display, which the servers set on a table at the entrance when they're not showing it to diners. It would almost make sense if it showed off the tortes and cakes to advantage, but it doesn't. Go for a dessert that's not on the display — the apple cobbler, which is baked to order and arrives with bubbly hot caramel sauce and cooling vanilla ice cream.

On a January night, a few nights after a winter dining promotion had ended, the Milton Inn was doing good business at a $100 a diner. To see it flourishing is more evidence that, in a rough economy, people still go out to good restaurants.

The Milton Inn

Where: 14833 York Road, Sparks

Contact: 410-771-4366,

Hours: Dinner daily, lunch Monday through Friday and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $15-$19; entrees, $31-$58

Food: ✭✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭✭

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

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