Tucked into a strip mall in Crystal — an area dominated by chain restaurants — Milton’s Vino, Vittles, Beer could be just what the northwest suburb needs to turn its restaurant reputation around. Dishing up generous platefuls of Southern-inspired comfort food, the cozy, family-friendly spot offers a welcoming vibe and homey touches that make you feel as if you’ve pulled up a chair at your friend’s kitchen island. But notice the qualifying “could be” — while Milton’s has a lot going for it in terms of style and a select group of dishes, it needs a tad more polish and consistency to make it a true destination for those beyond Crystal’s borders.
It’s hard not to like what you see upon entering Milton’s: a handsome bar, a large leather sofa that invites you to sit, and board games and coloring books for both kids and adults in case you have to wait. Though not a huge space, owners Francine and Phil Weber (who also own St. Louis Park neighborhood staple Park Tavern) have made the most of their rustic, antique-filled dining room, allowing parties large and small to relax without eating on top of one another but still making it easy to spy what your neighbor is noshing in case you need help making a decision.
Can we make a recommendation? Skip the big pickle ($1), which is simply a big pickle from a jar, and order a platter of chicken wings ($6 for a half-pound, $9 for a full pound). The wings’ crispy coating is more finger lickin’ good than the Colonel’s, and — sensitive palates, consider yourself warned — the jalapeño ranch dipping sauce means business. A half-pound can disappear awfully quickly, so if you’re with a hungry bunch, order a full. The cup of tomato soup ($3.75) starts off sweet but builds more depth in flavor with each mouthful, with the saltiness of the tiny crackers cutting through the rich tomato paste.
Unexpectedly, the star of the starter menu is the house salad ($4) when ordered with the green goddess dressing. The fresh burst of the dressing’s herbs, combined with creamy dollops of goat cheese scattered amongst the greens, results in a deliciously decadent first course. If you can spare any extra dressing, dip anything you can find in it — those wings, fries, a stray carrot stick. It would be a shame to leave any behind.
Milton’s soul-food pedigree is most evident among the main dishes, with ribs, jerk chicken, and planked salmon getting prime real estate on the menu. While all demonstrate a deft hand at seasoning, only the sweet-and-sour glazed salmon ($14) offers the moist flakiness of a properly cooked dish. The chicken’s ($12) dark portions arrive juicy as well, but the light meat’s dryness is harder to swallow. Similarly, the center portion of the ribs ($13 for a half-slab, $21 for a full slab) are meaty and tender, though not quite fall-off-the-bone tender, but the smaller ends require more chewing than one would hope.
All three dishes come with a side of succulent, smoky kale and a choice of mac and cheese, apple salad, fries, or fruit. While the mac and cheese, with its slightly gritty sauce fails short of expectations, the lovely apple salad lightens up the meat platters with its chunks of sweet fruit studded with cubes of smooth Jarlsberg cheese.
The sandwiches prove more promising, especially when paired with a pile of fries that evoke the McDonald’s variety in the best possible way — they’re thin and crispy and have that wonderful beefy aroma that fooled vegetarians for so many years. When ordered medium, the hamburger ($10) comes out without a trace of pink, but luckily the brandy-sauteed onions and slice of oozing cheddar on top add all the moisture the burger needs. The ribeye ($11) and chicken ($9) versions feature a similar rub that adds spice and salt but little heat. If you’re looking for a kick, stick with the jerk chicken plate or ask for a side of that jalapeño ranch.
A platter of wings and a rack of ribs later, you may be tempted to skip dessert. Don’t. Because whoever is baking up rum-soaked Bundt cakes ($3.25 / slice) certainly knows what he or she is doing. Soft, crumby, and sweet, the cake doesn’t shy away from the kick of the rum but balances it with a underlying butteriness and toothsome texture. Order a slice to enjoy at the table and another to take home. The carrot cake ($3.75) comes out as a thick slab of dense, carroty goodness, topped with a modest layer of delicately flavored cream cheese frosting. How refreshing to enjoy the actual carrot cake without battling with the cloying sweetness of frosting — a hardship from which most commercially carrot cakes suffer. The modest wine and beer lists won’t knock any aficionados’ socks off, but they cover the bases at reasonable prices, and the extremely generous pours make up for any lack of novelty.
Judging from the full tables — even on a Monday night — Milton’s is already making a name for itself among the locals. But for it to attract diners from across the wider metro area, it will need to smooth out the inconsistencies amongst its menu — and encourage its young staff to be more attentive and outgoing — so we can recommend it wholeheartedly. Of course, the rum cake immensely helps Milton’s make its case. Save a slice and a seat at the bar for us.
Milton’s Vino, Vittles, Beer
Southern-inspired soul food in Crystal
3545 Douglas Dr
Crystal, MN 55422
OWNERS: Francine and Phil Weber
Fri-Sat 9am-10pm (bar open until midnight)
BAR: Wine and beer
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / On weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $9-21