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San Diego Spotlight : Down-Home Food Makes Nice Comeback in La Jolla

Time works its little changes on most things, but four years after the first opening of Milligan’s, there are still plenty of nudes at this meat-and-potatoes restaurant in La Jolla.

The nudes are on the walls, of course, and though some of them are tasty, they by and large do not rival the offerings on the plates. This restaurant takes a very down-home, old-fashioned approach and succeeds quite nicely with such house specialties as fried chicken, baby back pork ribs and chicken fried steak.

Milligan’s is a case of Middle America coming home to roost on La Jolla Boulevard, and it’s about time that such a place did.

Milligan’s actually is about time, in a very real, quite specific sense because more than two years passed between the closing of Milligan’s and its reopening.

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Restaurants that close virtually never reopen, which makes Milligan’s something of a special case. The restaurant opened quite nicely in November, 1986, did well for a while, declined and was shuttered and for sale by early 1988. There weren’t any takers for the property, however, and proprietor Jim Milligan, a California-born businessman who spent many years in Oklahoma, recently added a second floor banquet room, fired up the stove and unlocked the doors for a second go at it.

For those who knew it well, the changes at Milligan’s are so slight that it seems as if the place had closed just for a weekend. A piano--well-played by a tuxedoed fellow who has fingered the keys at several of La Jolla’s better restaurants--has replaced the organ that formerly occupied a corner of the lounge. This is an improvement. More importantly, the original chef, Tom Histen, has returned, and is cooking a menu virtually unchanged from the one he inaugurated four years ago.

The menu devised by Histen and Milligan is forthrightly American. It virtually waves the flag by opening with a lagniappe in the form of a relish tray filled with radishes, pickled peppers and carrot and celery sticks. This sort of thing at least used to be de rigueur at Midwestern restaurants, and to find it in La Jolla in 1990 is oddly reassuring.

Another fine touch is the roving bread server, whose deep, lidded basket usually contains crisp corn sticks, reasonably fluffy biscuits and crusty French or Italian bread. When the breads are hot, as is often the case, it can be difficult to avoid filling up on them before the arrival of the main event.

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Milligan’s belongs to that class of restaurant that makes appetizers problematic by serving very large entree portions. The starter list is not that compelling in any case, but there are some niceties, including a small portion of ribs and a shrimp cocktail served in the style of a parfait. If shrimp cocktail seems appropriate in certain settings and on certain occasions, it is rarely more so than here; this version mixes generous chunks of shellfish with a particularly pungent, feisty sauce and layers this over shredded lettuce in a glass parfait dish.

Meals also include the choice of the day’s soup or a well-arranged house salad, which the server tosses at table. The house dressing, based on avocado, oil and vinegar, is a modified Green Goddess, and is pleasantly creamy and rich. A couple or table can skip the included salad and instead order a Caesar a la carte; the server blends in strong mustard, which isn’t at all authentic, but the result nonetheless excels.

The entree list opens on a grace note with Southern fried chicken, truthfully noted as the house specialty. It seems rather banal to define good fried chicken as moist within and crunchy without, but this both sums up the case and describes Milligan’s product. Purists most likely would decline to order and that includes baked and french fried spuds and a baked onion. They are good, but this seems very much a matter of personal taste because the gravy is pale and creamy, and quite a change for those who grew up with a choice between brown gravy or none at all. Entrees also include a garnish of simply cooked fresh vegetables and a dish of creamed corn for the table.

The fried chicken would seem the dish of choice for all but rib fanatics. “I’m in shock,” one such fanatic said after gobbling down the first few bites from a plate of hickory-smoked baby pork ribs. Pausing for breath, she added, “These are probably the best ribs I’ve ever had,” and they were indeed notably succulent, cooked to a virtually fat-less stage, very well flavored and nicely crusted on the edges. The kitchen put some thought into the sauce, so spicy and tangy that it was made to serve double duty as a dip for french fries.

Also in the down-home mood are the chicken-fried steak and the roast pork in a peppercorn-and-mustard crust. Both of these were sampled, and both were found adequate rather than exciting. The pounded steak seemed heavy and soggy, which certainly were unexpected effects, and the roast pork simply was dull; neither the pepper nor the mustard had much presence, and the meat was a touch on the tough side.

The menu perforce includes a pasta, in this case fettuccine with large shrimp, basil and tomatoes, and also offers prime rib; tenderloin and Kansas City strip steaks; chicken Kiev (Milligan’s may regard this dish as Russian fried chicken, which it is, to a degree); sauteed calamari steak and the fish of the day.

To follow one of these filling entrees with bread pudding seems to be gilding the lily to a potentially dangerous degree, but this is the house special and it is rich, tasty and quite sweet beneath its whiskey-spiked sauce. Other choices include pumpkin cheesecake and the fresh ice creams of the day, drawn from a list that may include chocolate-pecan, Grand Marnier and raspberry.

* MILLIGAN’S 5786 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla 459-7311 Dinner served nightly Credit cards accepted Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $40 to $70.

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