My birthday and Janet’s are separated by three weeks and occasionally we decide to celebrate with a combined birthday dinner out, as we did this past week at The Milton Inn. Our previous visit to The Milton Inn was in November 2007. Back then Chef Brian Boston was owner and Executive Chef. He poured his heart and soul into the place, and it showed with each meal we had there. The food was good, elevated without being trendy. And though pricey, I always walked away feeling like I was getting the better end of the deal. I was sorry to hear that COVID forced him out of business.
When I learned the Foreman-Wolf group purchased The Milton Inn I had mixed feelings. I was happy to see it reopening, but I have a love-hate relationship with Foreman-Wolf. There is no question that Cindy Wolf is an accomplished Chef with a long list of well deserved accolades to her name. She and business partner (and ex husband, and ex co-chef) Tony Foreman draw an almost cult-like following that worships the stove tops they cook on. That alone is enough to turn me off, but there’s the cost to value consideration. I’ve eaten at three of their establishments: Charleston, Cinghiale, and Petit Louis, with food experiences ranging from pretty good to horrible. None left me feeling like I got my money’s worth.
The food at Chef Wolf’s flagship restaurant Charleston was my biggest disappointment. I went in with high expectations and came out having been served food that was just OK and deeply flawed in places it shouldn’t have been. That was in 2014…based on today’s menu prices at Charleston that same dinner for two would set me back close to $450. As many times as I’ve considered going back to try again, I haven’t been able to talk myself into it with that much money at stake.
Friends of ours with similar, though decidedly more refined, preferences in food and wine dined at The Milton Inn earlier this fall and gave it a thumbs up, so I decided to give it a go for our combined birthday celebration this year. I’ll skip to the chase and say our 2021 birthday meal at The Milton Inn was good…probably better than our last meal there in 2007. I took to social media later that evening and gave it my enthusiastic thumbs up. But…as I started to write this review several days later, I found myself oddly disillusioned and at odds with the sentiment I expressed on social media.
Rather than lingering over the memory of a delicious meal, which it was, in a romantic and historic colonial era building, which it was, I found myself disappointed. Disappointed because as I worked to pull back the curtain on our experience at The Milton Inn I discovered that what we got was Petit Louis. I mean…darned near a carbon copy. From the menu selections to the prices, to the Executive Chef…all the way to the unapproachable Tony Foreman curated wine list where wine isn’t wine unless it comes from France and the more obscure the label the better…it was Petit Louis. That will make the legion of Foreman-Wolf fans happy, but not me. It shouldn’t have surprised me since Chef Scanga was Executive Chef for Petit Louis for eight years before joining Foreman-Wolf as co-owner in their newest venture. They even use the same supply chain, which I suppose makes sense since they copied everything else.
I had read reviews that credit Chef Scanga with making the most of the creative space allowed him in his new position as Executive Chef and co-owner of The Milton Inn, and that’s what I was hoping for. Someone fresh and new that could tap into the culinary mastery of Cindy Wolf and express it in a style that I find more appealing to my palate. Chef Scanga is talented there’s no doubt about that, but he’s only ever worked in various capacities under the Foreman-Wolf umbrella. I so wanted his food to be expressed with a unique voice in keeping with the history and tradition of the Milton Inn, but I didn’t get that. I got Petit Louis North.
If you’ve ever dined in the Milton Inn at any point during its history as a restaurant, you’ll appreciate the charm of the converted 281-year-old colonial era building. The front of house staff that we encountered were pleasant and the server assigned to our table, located in the more intimate front room, was good. She was responsible for the entire front dining room which, if I counted right, consisted of three tables for two, one table for four, and a single table for six. That’s not an excessive server to guest ratio for a competent server. Our server was competent, but her assigned tables were full and everybody arrived within 30 minutes of each other. She had some help, but only from lesser experienced staff who were still learning the ropes. It was even busier in the two larger main dining rooms, both of which were packed.
The only service issue we experienced was that it took about 10 minutes after our entrees were served for Janet to get the glass of wine she ordered…a wine she ordered to be paired with her entrée. The only reason we got it when we did was that I flagged down the server and asked for it…she was oblivious to the fact that our entrees had been delivered and that we were just sitting there waiting. That’s a pretty big gaffe when you consider the upside-down importance Foreman-Wolf places on wine, and specifically wine-food pairings. The wine was perfect Mr. Foreman…if only the food had been a bit warmer.
Alright enough about that…let’s get to the food. Janet and I shared a starter and dessert but went our separate ways when it came to the entrée. I sampled Janet’s entrée and got enough of it that I can speak to both. I’d characterize our dinner as three hits and a miss with the miss being my entrée. It wasn’t horrible, it just could have been better. It should have been better.
We started with the Velouté de Choufleur, described on the English side of the menu as a cauliflower and apple soup with thyme oil. It was a classic French velouté…silky, rich, and creamy, finished with a few chunks of diced apple in the center, surrounded by a thin ring of thyme oil. The presentation was unapologetically simple, the apples adding a bit of texture to the otherwise smooth velouté base. The thyme oil was a nice touch…truffle oil would have been tempting but too heavy. As good as this dish was, and it was quite good, I would have liked it better if it had more cauliflower flavor. It was there, but only just barely. Still, it was a warm and welcoming hug on a chilly fall evening and a great start to our dinner.
Janet ordered the bronzino for her entrée and it was served with honeynut squash purée, roasted local broccoli and cauliflower, marcona almonds, and lemon beurre noisette. As this was Janet’s dish, I only got a few bites of the fish to taste and only a schmear of the puree…none of the other components so I couldn’t really tell how well imagined the dish was with all components together. What I got of the puree though was delightful…smooth, sweet, and earthy… a nice fall frame around an otherwise all-season fish. Because it took so long to get Janet’s wine, by the time we started to eat the puree had begun to set a bit. You can see it in the pictures I posted on social media. It detracted from the texture a bit, but not the flavor which was still spot on.
The bronzino was amazing. Bronzino is a fairly forgiving fish to cook and difficult to ruin, though I’ve managed to do so on more than one occasion. That leaves a lot of room for mediocrity which is what I usually get when I order bronzino in a restaurant, but not this time. Whomever cooked it in The Milton Inn’s kitchen absolutely nailed it. The skin on Janet’s bronzino was crisp without being greasy, and what impressed me more was how evenly the fish was cooked edge to edge. The flesh came out like it had been cooked sous vide, yet the skin was so nicely crisped it had to have been cooked in the skillet. It was well seasoned and couldn’t have been prepared any better. My only disappointment with this dish was that I didn’t order it…it was Janet’s entree and that meant I would only get two bites!
I wanted to try the beef tenderloin. I don’t usually order beef when I eat out because it is expensive, and I have yet to find a place that can cook it better than I do in my own kitchen and on my own grill, but I was tempted to see what Chef Scanga might be able to do. Tempted enough to ask our server where they sourced their beef from. When she told me Creekstone Farms, I decided to pass. Creekstone Farms is a respected premium beef supplier located in Kansas. Chef Wolf uses them for Charleston, but having had their beef at Charleston, I didn’t find it to be particularly noteworthy.
I find the choice of Creekstone Farms as the source for beef at The Milton Inn curious. The marketing pitch for The Milton Inn notes that they make extensive use of locally sourced ingredients. Local sourcing was part of the unique “voice” I was looking for from The Milton Inn and I was disappointed to find it doesn’t extend to their beef. Why source your beef from Kansas when you can get it a little closer to home, from like…oh, I don’t know…say, Roseda Farms? At less than three miles down the road from the Inn, Roseda is so local you can almost hear the cattle lowing from the restaurant’s kitchen. And it is good…really good. But Chef Wolf has to know that…Roseda has been around since before she came on the scene. Which makes the choice of Creekstone all the more puzzling.
I ended up ordering the guinea fowl. Not particularly exotic, but it is a protein that I can’t routinely get my hands on to cook in my own kitchen which made it a better choice than the chicken or duck. It was roasted and served atop pommes puree with some carrots on the side and a generous amount of several mushroom varieties scattered about the plate. I count it as the one miss of our dinner because there were some things about the dish that I didn’t particularly care for.
I’ll start by saying the meat was tender, moist, and well cooked. The thigh had a bit of red meat around the bone but that was just from the usual marrow and myoglobin extraction that you get when frozen poultry, or this case guinea fowl, is thawed. To have cooked it out was unnecessary and would have left the rest of the meat insufferably dry which thankfully they didn’t do. As nicely cooked as the leg and thigh were, I expected the breast meat to be overcooked and dry. It was not. In fact, it was so juicy I checked to see if the two quarters of the bird were separate, which would tell me they may have been cooked separately. There would have been nothing wrong had that been the case, but it wasn’t. I was impressed, and it is hard to impress me when it comes to food.
My problems with this dish were skin and fat. Visually the dish looked amazing…the skin was golden brown and looked crispy. Unfortunately, there were patches on the leg and thigh where despite the golden color, the skin was soft, flaccid, and downright rubbery. And there was enough unrendered subcutaneous fat to be texturally unpleasant. Considering how lean guinea fowl usually is, I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t usually have to discretely spit out a wad of chewy skin with a glob of unrendered fat in a restaurant at this level, yet that’s what I found myself having to do. I usually leave most of the skin on my plate anyway, so no big deal…just not perfect and a source of potential disappointment for those who do like to eat the skin.
The real problem for me was the flavor. It’s been awhile since I’ve had guinea fowl, but this didn’t taste anything like what I was expecting. Guinea fowl is supposed to be a pretty lean bird, but that wasn’t my experience with this plate. I didn’t get much flavor out of the meat, but what I did get was the strong flavor of poultry fat. I suppose it might have come from the game bird reduction. More likely the kitchen went overboard with duck fat on the skin to get that golden color without drying out the meat. Wherever it came from, it was an unwelcome presence that delivered an unpleasant flavor to my palate and limited my enjoyment of the bird.
There were some high points with the rest of the plating. The mushrooms were incredible. I’m not much on mushroom identification but to me it looked like a few whole chanterelles along with some beech mushrooms and maybe cremini buttons or portobello portions. They were delicious…earthy and cooked just enough to leave a bit of crispy texture. The mushrooms too suffered a bit from excess fat but in this case it was butter and it tasted good so I didn’t mind the little bit of excess. There were also a couple of roasted carrots on the plate that were well cooked, crisp and with just the right touch of sweetness. The pommes puree was the best part of the dish. It was smooth with just the right amount of butter, cream and salt. I wish I could have gone back for seconds! Someday I’ll master the art of making pommes puree as smooth as what was on my plate without leaving it gummy. Some day.
I usually skip dessert, but when Janet pointed out Meyer lemon cheesecake was on the menu…cheesecake and Meyer lemons are two of my favorite things in the world…I had to order it. We agreed to split a serving, which meant I got just two or three bites, but that was enough. What I like about Meyer lemon is that it isn’t a true lemon…it is the result of a hybrid between lemon and Mandarin orange. It gives the fruit a nice balance of sweet and sour. This cheesecake was so rich and creamy it could have used more of the acidity you get from a true lemon to cut through it. That isn’t a complaint or a flaw…just a fleeting thought I had as my tastebuds wallowed in the decadence of it, quickly chased away by my next bite of the rich creamy cheesecake heaven. The edible flowers on top gave a nice visual pop to the dessert. Gosh, I hope they were edible…I ate them! At this level of dining if its on the plate its meant to get ate. Our server added two candles in celebration of our joint birthdays, which I found to be a nice personal touch.
What made this dessert particularly interesting for me was the use of an oat streusel as a non-crust crust. It was strewn around the plate, lolling about in a Meyer lemon anglaise. It added an interesting texture that was chewy with an occasional crunch. In between the rich cheese filling and the sweet and sour of the anglaise, the oat streusel tasted like a freshly mown hayfield after the first cut of the season. It evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for me as I still mark the passage of seasons by smells, often with my head hanging out the car window taking it all in like a dog, and the sweet smell of first cut hay is one of my favorites. All of that is to say the oat streusel was a pleasant addition to the plate all around and like many tastes and smells, it evoked some strong but pleasant memories. A bite of the cheesecake with a few bits of the anglaise covered streusel put me in my happy place for the rest of the night. Just the memory of it as I write this has my mouth watering. The ribbon of white chocolate the cheesecake was topped with probably didn’t hurt. So yeah, order the cheesecake.
Now that I’ve eaten at Chef Scanga’s Milton Inn once, I have no reason to go back. I pulled the curtain back on what I hoped would be a new and unique culinary voice brought in to run an iconic establishment. What I found instead was the homogeneity of the Foreman-Wolf brand as executed by a talented chef who hasn’t yet discovered how to express his own voice, or if he even has one. What I found was Petit Louis North in a hunting lodge. That’s not what I was hoping for at The Milton Inn.