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.

Other ocean fare gets deft treatment. The four jumbo sea scallops, each about the size of a hockey puck, are so wonderfully moist that the shallot Madeira cream sauce they're bathed in is almost superfluous. The roasted corn tamale that comes alongside is a clever touch, a nice change of pace from rice or spuds.

Two of those same tamales also accompany the Mexican shrimp, a dozen firm crustaceans coated with a potent garlic cream sauce. No one can accuse Milton's kitchen of going too light on flavor.

Soft-shell crabs can't quite keep up with the other seafood. And the two best parts of this platter--a crab cake perched atop flash-fried spinach--are already available as an appetizer.

The kitchen isn't quite as steady with meat as it is with fish. You'll get the most bang for your buck from the $13 Pot Roast AY2FAY. (That's Milton's cutesy way of writing etoufee.)

You get a mound of braised, shredded beef, tender and flavorful, moistened with gravy and paired with a thick pile of garlicky mashed potatoes. It's a simple, homey platter and a very effective one.

I'm not nearly as impressed with the grilled tenderloin. It's rubbed with a bit of chile and touched up with a thimbleful of blue cheese. But the beef itself isn't anything special, and it's inelegantly balanced on top of mashed potatoes. If you're going to spend $23.50 on a steak, you can do better elsewhere.

I wish the chef hadn't fouled up the pork tenderloin, because even in its diminished state I could still detect real potential. Overcooked pork is an occupational hazard. So is food that sits out too long before it's served. I'd have liked to have tried this otherwise good-looking meat on a night when it hadn't lingered so long on the flames--and so long on the counter. That's because it's smoothed with a zesty sauce fashioned with cascabel chile and honey and teamed with black beans that held real promise, if they could ever reach the table hot.

The kitchen occasionally puts out a duck special, and it's a thoroughly commendable effort. The expertly cooked bird is glazed with a sweet-tangy blend of honey and balsamic vinegar. The skin comes out crispy, and the meat is moist without being fatty. A side of white beans furnishes a rustic note.

Even the lone pasta dish, which is probably a menu afterthought, shows some spunk. Angel hair pasta is festooned with mushrooms and bathed in a tomato basil sauce that tastes like someone spent time cooking it. Too bad Milton's didn't invest in a hunk of good cheese to grate over it.

For some inexplicable reason, Milton's doesn't invest in vegetables, either. Perhaps the proprietor's mother forced them on him as a child, and he's still carrying a grudge. I couldn't find a carrot, green bean or even zucchini anywhere on the entree plates. Nor are they offered as à la carte sides. (There was a vegetable entree, but it was axed after about two months.) What's the downside to serving veggies? I can't think of any. And good veggies may give people one more reason to come here.

Though Milton may have something against vegetables, he certainly has nothing against desserts. The ones here are worth staying for. Take the "chocolate vanilla chocolate." It resembles an ice cream sandwich, a vanilla interior wedged between a fudgy cake exterior. It's sweet, refreshing and a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Peanut butter chocolate cheesecake is well-crafted, a rich, creamy, intense wedge goosed up with a cajeta drizzle. If the marvelous chipotle bread pudding is listed as a chalkboard special, don't hesitate. It's not too heavy, not too light, and it's got just the right amount of spicy bite. A soothing scoop of cajeta ice cream alongside helps cool the flames. And Milton's banana rum cream tart also ends the meal on a high note.

The espresso, however, doesn't. Somebody needs to teach the staff how to make it.

Somebody also needs to help them work out the service bugs. Friendly and well-meaning aren't always enough. Waitresses bearing an armful of $20 entrees shouldn't be asking who-gets-what. If you're going to offer a cioppino special, the waiter should know what cioppino is, and how to pronounce it. (Ours confessed he'd never heard of the dish.) And if the kitchen is taking distressingly long to get the food out, as it did on two of my three visits, someone needs to keep fidgety dinners informed.

Still, despite its imperfections, Milton's does what a restaurant is supposed to do: show you a good time. Who knows? Maybe it will start a trend.

Creole cioppino
Pork tenderloin
Peanut butter chocolate cheesecake



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