Maison Marconi, 106 W. Saratoga St. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays. MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: first courses, $1.50-$8; entrees, $5.50-$18.50.
As a sort of antidote to all the new upscale chain restaurants I've been to lately, I paid a visit to Baltimore's venerable Maison Marconi. Not that I've had my fill of charred rare tuna and marinated portabello mushrooms, but it was good to step back 15 years, which is about the last time I ate at Marconi's.
Nothing has changed. Oh, the prices have gone up and reservations are now accepted. (You used to have to stand in line to get a table.) But it's still the same quirky, personable, comfortable place I remember from my earliest days in Baltimore. This is a restaurant that doesn't know what the word trendy means. The food is comfort food, which may sound odd when you're talking about lobster and sweetbreads; but it's true nonetheless.
The front dining room of the old rowhouse on Saratoga Street, the room where I've always eaten, has the same Old World frumpiness and charm it always did. The place actually seems less dingy than it used to. The mural looks the same, except that it's now a warm sepia instead of a faded green. Wonderfully elaborate crystal chandeliers still hang above the tables, which are spotless in their white linen. The waiters still wear tuxedos.
Those waiters aren't students or whatever working a day job. These are professionals, proud of what they do. They know the menu intimately -- and many of their customers by name. (But the service isn't perfect: You aren't, for instance, brought fresh silverware between courses.)
Order wine by the glass, and the waiter pours it at the table. Order a house salad, and watch him chop up the lettuce, pimento and egg before serving it.
Just like it always used to be done.
The menu is pretty much unaffected by the food fashions of the day. I remember ordering these same dishes two decades ago: lobster cardinal, sweetbreads in a cream sauce, creamed spinach and, of course, the now famous ice cream served with a bowl of homemade chocolate sauce. Notice anything about this food? It's comforting, and it's definitely not spa cuisine.
The choice of appetizers is as scanty as ever. The simpler, the better, and you can't get much simpler or better than big snowy lumps of backfin crab meat -- fresh and cold served with a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce.
Or have the shrimp in garlic sauce. With 10 shrimp and so much rich, mildly garlicky sauce it's more like soup.
What I would stay away from is the soup, at least the French onion soup, with its murky, dark, intense broth, soggy crouton and no cheese. No cheese may be traditional, but this soup needs something to perk it up.
First courses are limited, but the entrees make up for them. The food is supposedly "Italian, French and Continental," whatever that means. Somehow it includes curried chicken, poached eggs, crab cakes and rockfish. Everything is a la carte -- the bread and butter as well as the vegetables. Very European.
The kitchen doesn't do everything equally well, and regulars know what and what not to order. I'm not familiar with every dish, but I do know to order the lamb chops, which are indescribably tender and full of flavor, generously cut, and cooked to perfect pinkness with a slight char to the outside. They aren't mesquite-grilled, mind you -- and they're served with mint jelly from a jar, not a chic sauce made with fresh mint leaves.
Lobster cardinal is probably Marconi's signature dish. The meat of a whole lobster is tossed with cream, mushrooms and sherry, then put back in the shell and broiled for a few moments. It's a lusciously rich dish, extravagant to look at and guaranteed to banish all thoughts of low-calorie cuisine.
The kitchen did less well with what I think of as one of its classics: curry of chicken. Boneless chicken in a cream sauce flavored with lots of curry powder is served over rice. It tasted OK at first but got monotonous, even with a side dish of chutney.
That was one of a couple of flaws in our meal. There was the onion soup, of course, and stone-cold broccoli. Too bad; it was perfectly cooked and dusted deliciously with Parmesan. (Both our other vegetables were fine -- creamed spinach that would convert anyone to the vegetable, and a crisp, grease-free fried eggplant.)
The most surprising flaw, though, was the chocolate sundae. The waiter brings the ice cream to your table, ladles on chocolate sauce, and leaves the bowl on the table. Alas, the sauce was almost too bitterly chocolate to eat -- I've had it before and it didn't used to be like that. Oh well, you can always get ice cream with fresh raspberries (my choice) or one of several traditional desserts made by Vaccaro's Pastry Shop.