Adding flavor to life in Milton
Pair of new restaurants fill a void
The revolution will not be televised, but it may take place by the light of multiple flat-screens.
Where once there was naught but pizza and middling Chinese food, where once the thirsty roamed far and wide seeking drink, lo, now there are restaurants. In Milton. With liquor licenses. Restaurants serving cocktails named things like “Manhattan Meets Milton Center’’ and “Baker’s Chocolate.’’ Restaurants with steak frites and raw bar, where aioli is spattered as freely as pellets at a drunken paint ball tourney.
For Milton, which hadn’t seen a restaurant serving booze for many years, this is a sea change. In the weeks spanning the end of July and the beginning of August, both Abby Park and 88 Wharf opened their doors. (Ledge Kitchen + Drinks arrived on the scene, too, minutes away in Dorchester’s Lower Mills.)
Even if the food wasn’t that good, it was bound to be good. Sometimes showing up is 90 percent of the battle.
At Abby Park, in East Milton Square, Michael Pirini is the chef; the Johnson & Wales grad came from the Cape, where he cooked at such restaurants as Wianno Grille and Abbicci. Co-owner Vance Welch has a history with the area. He owns Java Jo’s in Jamaica Plain, and there used to be another branch of the cafe a few doors down from Abby Park until it was destroyed by fire.
Many of Pirini’s appetizers would be right at home at a cocktail party - scallops and bacon, baked brie, and the “Park Board,’’ a wood platter with inset china trays bearing different nibbles. Feta and olives is an unimpeachable combination, but it’s followed by dates stuffed with bland, dense goat cheese and marcona almonds. Then comes smoked salmon with a retro lobster mousse, and prosciutto with an overly sweet, apple butter-esque chutney.
The words “slow-roasted pork cigars’’ are evocative and instantly hunger-inducing, but the dish itself is plebeian. Pork wrapped in dough and fried, these cigars are sloppy and wide rather than slender, and the filling lacks the concentrated flavor one expects from slow-roasted meat. Thai chili shrimp are coated with a gooey, sweet-hot sauce and served with cucumbers pickled in rice vinegar. Another shrimp or two would be nice (there are three in our order), but this dish is good for what it is. You’ve had a version of it at at least one wedding you’ve attended.
Here comes the fried: Fritto misto is a great rendition, perfectly battered shrimp, squid, and slices of red chilies for kicks. Somebody knows how to drive that Frialator; the skin-on french fries that come with a burger are also very good. The burger itself is Kobe beef, but when it’s topped with cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, mushrooms, or an egg ($1 each), mostly what you can tell is that the patty is overcooked.
The menu includes several flatbreads. One topped with bacon, aged cheddar, and apples is disappointing; it should be thinner and crisper, the cheddar sharper. There’s also a selection of steaks and sides, then a nonet of creative entrees. Here there is more evocative, hunger-inducing description. Pirini knows how to write a menu. Grilled lamb comes with Tunisian brik, samosa-like pastries filled with spiced lamb and feta; tender gigante beans; and lemony greens. But the thin piece of meat is as tough as a tire. “My teeth are bouncing off of it,’’ whispers the owner of the plate between chews.
Halibut with date crust, celery root puree, and Concord grape reduction sounds captivating, but the grape reduction tastes like jelly in heels. It’s playing grown-up. The halibut tastes slightly old. Celery root, simple and elegant, is the plate’s biggest success. A dish of cavatelli pulls that same trick. Pasta twined with big bites of fresh-tasting lobster in a light cream sauce with peas and leeks, it’s lovely.
For dessert, there’s a dry cinnamon brioche bread pudding, a pumpkin creme brulee with a perfect, crackling crust, and several other hulking desserts. There are also “small bites’’ for those who want just a little something sweet - crunchy, sauteed apples with granola crisp; the creamy, tart innards of a Key lime pie garnished with a bit of graham cracker; gingerbread cake with the texture of sawdust.
Service at Abby Park is as slow as it is friendly, which leaves you time to take in the surroundings. This was a video store? It looks as though it’s always been a restaurant, painted in muted hues with red accents, a bar at the center of the room, booths lined with dark wood, and an open kitchen that makes a noisy room even noisier.
It’s a nicely done interior, but 88 Wharf wins for exterior. It’s on the river, by the Milton Yacht Club, with a patio that offers a view of the boats. Inside, there’s a U-shaped marble bar; walk past it and you’re in an open dining room decorated in lots of beige. Ken Rogers is the chef here; the place is run by one of the people behind Blue on Highland in Needham. Where Abby Park is fun and casual, 88 Wharf feels more buttoned up, with a bit of a members-only vibe at the bar.
The menu has much in common with Abby Park’s; both restaurants offer similar takes on the kind of New American fare that is no longer new enough to warrant the moniker. Here, though, flatbread is called pizza. A pie with sausage and broccoli rabe features a pleasingly crisp crust and unusually bitter broccoli rabe. “Crispy calamari’’ are actually somewhat soggy, and the squid tastes like something you could get out of a box. But house-made potato chips treated with a judicious amount of truffle oil are a great little bar snack.
Halibut with Israeli couscous and broccoli rabe appears to have been sitting under a heat lamp; the tarragon beurre blanc has started to form a skin. It’s a delicious piece of fish, despite being a bit overcooked. Steak frites features undercooked hanger steak, crisp, golden fries, and watercress salad. Short rib stroganoff looks completely unappealing - shreds of dry, brown meat over noodles - but the short rib has good flavor and the pappardelle it’s served over is excellent house-made fresh pasta. A veal rollup served with gnocchi has nothing to recommend it; the gnocchi are gluey, the veal dry and tasteless.
For dessert, an ice cream sundae with bananas and a bread pudding bore, the former not decadent enough, the latter blurring with every other bread pudding being served in every restaurant in town.
In this town, though, that still doesn’t add up to a lot of bread pudding. There’s room for improvement in both kitchens, but Abby Park and 88 Wharf bring something new and welcome to Milton.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.