Classic cocktails and close calls at the Gin Mill

The Baltimore Sun

Think back to another time, Canton in the late 1990s. We thought morning would never come, and the next shooter was always the best one, because we knew we'd still get up in time for Tae Bo class. Somehow we always ended up at the Gin Mill, probably because it was just one block away from the Sip and Bite.

OK, that wasn't us. But it was lots of young people. And the Gin Mill, with its Canton gateway location, was a big part of that scene. And then, over time, the Gin Mill faded, if not into obscurity then into something less than essential, and last year the original owners, who opened it in 1997, sold it. And then they bought it back, gutted it from top to bottom and unveiled a newly renovated Gin Mill on St. Patrick's Day.

The best features of this new, more adult-friendly Gin Mill, which has the dark and handsome looks of a Manhattan cocktail, are the horseshoe-shaped bar that now anchors the ground-floor space and a newly installed swanky lounge, intimate because it's separated by a wall from the main space. (The second floor wasn't open when we visited.)

Along with a new focus from the kitchen on square-plate bistro fare, the bar's emphasis has moved away from beer and shots to "handcrafted classic cocktails," and the Gin Mill has done admirable work in compiling and presenting a cocktail menu full of engaging commentary about such now-obscure concoctions as the Moscow Mule and the Pisco Sour.

The multiple television screens around the room feel like a compromise, and a mild disconnect from the new emphasis on grown-up food and drink; on the other hand, having them might help keep the place from feeling pretentious, or exclusive. It's a close call.

The comfortably mid-priced menu and its executions are full of close calls, too. Some efforts look good but lack coherent, or distinctive, flavors. The ahi tuna tempura entree ($16) looked pretty on the plate, with bright ruby slices of coated tuna served with baby bok choy and soba noodles, but the fish itself needs a splash or dash of something, and its batter had no crispness or crunch.

An almost lovely pan-seared scallop appetizer ($10), each scallop topped with beurre blanc and a bright red smidge of tomato confit, was hobbled by the slightly sour taste of the scallops themselves. An accompanying salad of baby greens looked flat, in need of some fluffing, and even a little stingy.

Little things like this led some dishes astray. If there's a way for the slicing and placement of bread to betray a sauteed mussels appetizer ($8), here it was. The wine, garlic and herb broth had an agreeable flavor and the mussels were mostly clean, but the bread the menu describes as "toasted baguette" was sliced too widely, across an odd bias, and was barely toasted. It looked wrong, and it mattered. Halving the slices of smoked chorizo sausage felt odd, too.

A few things just aren't working, not right now, anyway, and they're disappointing. Rockfish fingers ($12), served with mango remoulade, is a version of fish and chips that sounds good but offers scant pleasure. The batter really needs more flavor; the fries do, too. I'll give a pass to the Gin Mill burger ($12), served with bacon, melted cheddar and sauteed onions, because I didn't notice the "9 ounces" info on the label. That's too big for a burger to be cooked satisfyingly, and it wasn't.

The best things we saw were the antipasto platter ($15), a well-conceived plate of prosciutto-wrapped melon, grilled asparagus, fresh mozzarella, salami, olives and garlic toast; and the free-range chicken breast ($16), a fine effort, and one that convinced me that the kitchen is capable of much more than it's delivering right now.

Gin Mill

Where: 2300 Boston St., Canton

Call: 410-327-6455

Open: daily for lunch and dinner:

11 a.m.-1:30 a.m.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Entrees $9-$19, sides/appetizers $6-$15

Food: ** (2 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good:*** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *]

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