Repast Imperfect

Milton's, 3159 East Lincoln, Phoenix, 602-667-7644. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

I've had a letter on my desk for about a week now from a very unhappy diner. She's fed up with the restaurant scene in our town--lousy food, incompetent service and disrespectful management. She thinks restaurants should hang this sign on their doors:

Just shove your check or credit card through the slot because we expect you to pay no matter [how bad] the food or service. Have a so-so evening and drop back by when you'd like to get ripped off again.

This message, she says, should be signed, "Management, cooks, servers, bartenders and anyone else who pretends to work here."

I feel her pain. Fortunately, I can suggest a possible cure: Milton's. It's a new restaurant, featuring what the owner calls "brazen" American fare.

No, Milton's is not perfect. In fact, Milton's is occasionally so far from perfection that you'd need the Hubble telescope to get perfection in your sights. But, unlike so many insufferable, overpriced, we're-doing-you-a-favor-just-letting-you-eat-here places these days, Milton's actually seems to want you to enjoy your dining-out experience.

The guy who's in charge of valet parking certainly does. He'll sprint to open the restaurant's front door when you arrive and depart, thanking you for coming. The hostesses believe a cheery greeting works better than a frosty attitude. When our table wasn't ready at reservation time, the owner apologized for the delay and suggested we'd be more comfortable sitting at the bar than milling around near the entrance. "I'm not trying to get you to order drinks," he assured our group. "Just relax. I'll come get you myself as soon as everything is set." When's the last time someone directed you to a restaurant bar and didn't make you feel uneasy about not drinking?

And when Milton's fouls up, give it credit for trying to make things right. On one visit, we had to deal with an overcooked entree that also spent way too long making the journey from the kitchen to our table. Reheating, we informed the waiter, didn't help. The manager immediately came by and told us he was taking the dish off our bill and comping us desserts.

The Milton behind Milton's is Milton Barnes. He's no neophyte--old-timers may recall he operated a restaurant called La Serre almost two decades ago.

His latest venture is a lot more contemporary. The linen-lined tables are topped with butcher paper. Woven hangings by Arizona tribes brighten the walls, as do colorful paintings by the proprietor's wife and daughter. A fresh rose on the table and orchids by the door offer elegant notes. Let's salute management, too, for having the good sense not to pipe in music.

The straightforward menu is as up-to-date as the look. That's because the kitchen tweaks several dishes, touching them up with a distinctive New Orleans or Southwestern twist.

Someone, however, needs to tweak the bread basket. It's commendable that Milton's makes its own breads, but that's about as much praise as I can muster. The French bread is too much like white bread--no chewiness, no crust. The brioche and green chile muffins are also completely resistible.

The starters, however, get the meal on track. One of them, the Creole cioppino, may be the single best thing I've eaten so far this year. Only my professional duties kept me from ordering yet another bowl as a main dish and a third one for dessert.

What got me swooning? The rich, vibrant, spicy broth is teeming with aquatic life--fat shrimp, cockles, chunks of fish and mussels. The flavors simply explode.

But there is a problem. The cioppino isn't on the regular menu--it shows up only as an occasional special. I'd not only make it a permanent item, I'd turn it into an entree, something to build up to. It's too impressive to lead off the meal.

The big bowl of mussels and clams is almost in the same class. The bivalves get a boost from a fragrant tomato broth freshened with tasso, a Cajun sausage with a smoky aroma and peppery bite. You could eat this broth with a spoon, and we did.

At $13.50, the pair of plump, crunchy crab cakes on a bed of flash-fried spinach is no appetizer bargain. But it certainly is delicious. Maybe that's because, according to the waiter, the kitchen goes heavy on the crab instead of breadcrumbs.

Two other starters get you primed. Make sure you have a group of at least three if you order the smoked salmon cheesecake. It's a big, dense, rich wedge, artfully topped with a few dollops of caviar. The grilled artichoke, with a remoulade dipping sauce, is a lighter way to edge into dinner.

For the most part, the main dishes keep up the flavor assault. The monkfish certainly doesn't shortchange your taste buds. It's a large, meaty slab, embellished by a vigorous tomato olive sauce. But the kitchen sends it out without any other support. It needs a starch, perhaps some new potatoes or even pasta, to provide balance and give the sauce another outlet.

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