A Chef Finds His Voice -- The Milton Inn Revisited
I have dined in more high-end restaurants around the world than I care to remember, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been truly gobsmacked by the experience, and I remember each one of those meals. The first was at Daigo in Tokyo, next it was Chef Brian Voltaggio’s Volt in Frederick, Chef Nancy Oakes’ Boulevard in San Francisco, and my all-time favorite still, Chef Scott Anderson’s elements in Princeton. Those are all top-notch restaurants, but other than Daigo, you won’t find those Chefs or their restaurants at the top of any list of the world’s best dining experiences. What made them memorable for me was that each Chef was incredibly talented, and each brought a unique voice to their culinary creations and damn the critics who didn’t get it.
When I decided to try the newly relaunched The Milton Inn 18 months ago, I was hopeful I would find another unique voice coming from the kitchen. The current iteration of The Milton Inn is the product of a collaboration between Chef Cindy Wolf and longtime partner Tony Foreman, but with a twist…Chef Chris Scanga. Chef Scanga was not only Executive Chef of The Milton Inn but also co-owner, and I was eager to discover how he would express his voice in the food. I came away from the experience disappointed…I didn’t get Chef Scanga’s voice…I got Foreman-Wolf.
I wrote about that dinner in a review I posted to my blog back in 2021. It was a great meal, Chef Scanga is clearly talented, and my review was mostly positive…I titled it Three Hits and a Miss. I mean, how can you not enjoy any meal at a Foreman-Wolf establishment? But I was looking for Chef Scanga’s voice, and I didn’t get it.
Almost 18 months after I posted that review to my blog, Chef Scanga somehow stumbled across it. And he read it. Much to my surprise, he reached out to me last month and invited me back to see how the place has evolved. Set aside for a moment my incredulity with how he found the blog post…readership on my most popular posts barely breaks three digits…he found it, he read it, and he responded. And in a very humble and professional manner. That impressed me. But what about the food? I mean, it is all about the food.
I have to say I was apprehensive about going back. What if I found it to be more of the same? I knew if I went back, I was going to write about it again and anyone who reads my restaurant reviews knows I don’t pull punches. I wasn’t about to start just because the Chef invited me back, but neither was I keen to pile on. As a consumer I enjoy expressing my satisfaction or dissatisfaction with dining out, but I’m also mindful that it is entirely too easy for someone like me to write a critical review of food I had no part in preparing. I know how hard Chefs and their staff work to create the food they serve, and particularly Chefs with an ownership role. As much as I love exploring and creating food in my own kitchen, I could never put in the sweat equity they do.
I needn’t have worried. The entire dining experience was, in a word, delightful. Chef Scanga even came out for a chat after the meal and can I just say, he is YOUNG! I’m happy to say Chef Scanga has found his culinary voice, or perhaps I just found where to look for it. To be sure, the Foreman-Wolf imprimatur was still evident, but only where it made sense. Chef Scanga has built on his classic French culinary training and his apprenticeship with Chef Wolf, adding his own style and unique voice, and the result was nothing short of delectable. And with that rather long-winded introduction, here is my review of this week’s dinner at Chef Scanga’s The Milton Inn.
I’ll start with the service, which was impeccable. Our server Sean has been with The Milton Inn since its reopening, in fact he told us he worked for Chef Boston before the Foreman-Wolf-Scanga partnership took over and relaunched the place. Sean had full command of the menu to include the ingredients that went into each dish, their sourcing, and the techniques used in the kitchen. His commentary was invaluable in helping us make menu selections that fit our preferences.
Sean started us off with a discussion about our last visit to The Milton Inn, what worked for us and more importantly, what didn’t and why. From there he made menu recommendations that guided without being directive. He wasn’t pushing one dish over another, instead helping us make selections that fit our palates based on his knowledge of the menu and the kitchen. That’s such an important part of making a meal special and Sean executed it well.
There was only one item offered that was not included on the printed menu, a starter consisting of a Yellowtail crudo. It sounded delicious so we ordered one to share. Our plate came with a generous half dozen sashimi-sized slices of Yellowtail that were pale-ish pink to light red in color, somewhere between Hamachi and Buri. The texture was meaty but with a delicate mouthfeel, the flavors subtle with some oily richness without being overpowering. The dish was garnished with drops of coriander aioli, dollops of a fermented orange-serrano jelly, and topped with sunchoke chips. Sparse grains of kosher or sea salt were placed atop the Yellowtail at plating so as not to dissolve prematurely, and a few sprigs of cilantro finished off the dish. It was a visually appealing starter that punched well above its weight in complexity and layered flavors.
I can’t begin to describe how amazing this dish was. When Sean described it to us, he cautioned that the serrano Chef Scanga used would add some zing to the dish. That it did…it reminded me of a citrusy gochujang, and I wasn’t surprised when Chef Scanga later told us he styled it after a fermented Korean condiment. It consisted of small chunks of orange zest and serrano peppers swimming in a bath of citrus jelly. Chef Scanga briefly described the process he used to make it, blending orange zest, pulp, and juice together with serrano peppers and fermenting the mixture for a week to fully extract the flavors. It was spicy, but the heat was cut with the cilantro garnish along with the coriander aioli. The nutty citrus notes of the coriander in the aioli blended nicely with the orange in the fermented jelly.
Chef Scanga was trained in classic French cooking, but this appetizer was decidedly not classic French cooking. It was exactly what I was looking for to see how he would differentiate his palate from the Foreman-Wolf colorwheel. Each bite delivered a mouthful of supercharged textures with complex layers of flavor that were at the same time playful yet seriously tasty that took time to develop and appreciate. It was a joy to linger over every morsel, though if you aren’t a fan of serrano you might want to go easy on the jelly. I loved the heat, and we scraped every bit of it off the plate, it was that delicious.
On to the entrees. One of the things I really like about the evolution of The Milton Inn’s menu is the inclusion of a small plates section. I went with the 4 oz beef tenderloin from the small plates portion of the menu, mostly because the beef was sourced from Roseda Farms which is just a few miles up the road from The Milton Inn. I was particularly critical of Chef Scanga in my 2021 blog post for sourcing his beef then from Creekstone Farms, like the rest of the Foreman-Wolf group restaurants. With his emphasis on using locally sourced ingredients, I didn’t understand why he would source beef from Kansas when he could get a high-quality product just up the road.
I’ve cooked enough Roseda Farms beef in my own kitchen to know what their tenderloin should taste like. In fact, I don’t usually order it when I see it on a menu because the only thing a restaurant kitchen can do to it that I can’t is screw it up. But…since I made such a stink about its absence from the menu in my first review, I felt obliged to order it. I’m glad I did.
The beef was cooked a proper medium rare with a nicely seared exterior and a juicy red center that was evenly distributed all the way around. It had a tender and smooth texture with just the right amount of chew to it. The flavor was everything I expect when I bite into a Roseda steak…the grass fed and spent brewery grain finished meat rendering a richly complex beef flavor with strong notes of barley and grass. If your tastes run to the corn-fed Midwest style of beef, stick with one of the Foreman-Wolf establishments that offer Creekstone Farms sourced beef. That is a high-end product that is delicious in its own right, but as a lifelong Marylander my palate prefers the flavors you get from cattle fed on a diet of Maryland grass.
As an aside, Chef Scanga’s ingredient sourcing shows his maturity as a chef. He still works with Foreman-Wolf to take advantage of their sourcing where it makes sense, but he has gone his own way when his unique culinary voice demands it, and the result works well for The Milton Inn.
My tenderloin was served with a pimentón aoli, on the side rather than poured over top (bravo!) along with morel mushrooms, sliced cherry tomatoes, a few sprigs of haricots verts, some microgreens and a light drizzle of EVOO and basil over the veggies. I would have been perfectly happy with just the filet on the plate by itself…I’m not usually a fan of sauces with beef. When you serve a properly cooked portion of high-quality beef it doesn’t need anything more, or so I thought. Chef Scanga’s pimentón aioli won me over. I was glad it was on the side of the beef rather than poured over it…I didn’t use much of it, but what I did use made a difference.
I love Roseda Farms beef, but I didn’t realize how much better it can taste with a well-matched sauce. It gave the beef an even more velvety mouthfeel with hints of smokey, slightly nutty citric acid that transformed an already stellar cut of beef to a dish that, at $26 for a 4 oz serving, is seriously underpriced. It simply melted in my mouth with a cascade of evolving rich and buttery flavors that didn’t overpower the more delicate grassy notes from the beef. Chef Scanga took a high-quality cut of beef and made it better. Much better. And he did it his way, which made this dish one that I will remember for a very long time.
Janet is the fish lover in our family, so of course she ordered the pan seared rockfish. As with our first dinner at The Milton Inn, the fish was cooked to perfection with the skin nicely crisped without being greasy, the flesh flaky and cooked through but still moist and resting on a pool of rich vin jaune butter sauce. Her dish was adorned with a trio of morel, beech, and oyster mushrooms that were every bit as delicious as they were on the bronzino she ordered on our previous visit. She only shared one bite with me, but it was enough for me to appreciate the skill that went into creating the dish.
Sides are ordered ala carte and we opted to share another offering from the small plate menu, carrots with sugar snap peas and a cumin crème fraiche. The platting included charred ramps along with more of the delicious morel mushrooms and a pistou drizzle that thankfully did not include any parmesan. It shouldn't, and it didn't. At least I didn't detect any, and if there is even a small amount of butyric acid in a dish I'll find it because it yields one of the few flavors I detest. This was the only dish of the night where we left some on the plate, but not because it wasn’t delicious…it was. We were just stuffed from our entrees. The carrots and snap peas were crisp and sweet, and the basil in the pistou brought a nice bright note to the dish. The cumin crème fraiche is what led me to order it, but if I’m being honest the real star for me as I ate it were the charred ramps. They were lightly but cloyingly pungent with a sweetness that was unexpected but tasty. It was the perfect side dish to accompany both of our mains without upstaging them.
We ordered dessert to go since we were both full, and we asked Sean to help us pick something that would travel well as a take-out option. He steered us to the raspberry chocolate torte, and it was a good choice. Janet enjoyed her share of our portion when we got home, but I saved mine for breakfast the next morning. It was rich and chocolatey, but I didn’t get much raspberry from it. Probably because my taste buds weren’t quite fully awake when I ate it. I still loved it. The dark chocolate sponge cake was layered atop a white chocolate Cremieux and I topped it with the raspberry chocolate ganache, which was thoughtfully packaged in a small take-out cup with a lid so we could add it when we were ready to eat. It was absolutely sinful, as a dessert should be.
The Milton Inn’s setting in Baltimore County’s hunt country is stylishly low key, and the food was amazing. There aren’t many restaurants where I’m willing to part with the equivalent of an entire week’s grocery bill when the check comes to the table, but this is surely one of the few. I will be back, and this time it won’t take a personal invitation from Chef Scanga. If you enjoy fine dining in a relaxed setting and haven’t tried The Milton Inn recently, I encourage you to make a reservation and taste for yourself.