From Big-city Luxury To Eastern Shore Simplicity

DINING OUT 7

October 23, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Michael Rork's Town Dock, 125 Mulberry St., St. Michaels, (410) 745-5577, (800) 884-0103. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Appetizers, $2.40-$6.95; entrees, $12.95-$22. **1/2

If you're expecting Michael Rork's Town Dock to be anything like Hampton's at Harbor Court, the luxury restaurant where he worked as chef before buying his own place in St. Michaels, think again.

Mr. Rork and his wife, Betsy, did what so many people long to do: They left the big city for a small town on the Eastern Shore. No matter that Mr. Rork had gained a national reputation for his vTC fabulous -- and fabulously expensive -- creations at Hampton's. When he bought his own restaurant, it was a large (250-seat), slightly down-at-the-heels seafood place with a great view of the water. He was quoted as saying he planned to serve fresh, regional, moderately priced food.

Still, if you've ever eaten at Hampton's, it's almost impossible to imagine a restaurant called Michael Rork's Town Dock serving simple food.

But here it is, a menu that features seafood chowder, crab cakes and fried shrimp. I wouldn't be surprised if these are left over from when the Town Dock was just the Town Dock, not Michael Rork's Town Dock. Maybe Mr. Rork concentrates on the specials of the day, which are a very different matter.

There was sensationally fresh "wild" rockfish dusted with flour and sauteed to a beautiful gold. It came with an intensely flavorful local corn and tomato relish. Equally fresh flounder fillets -- three of them -- had a crisp coating of cornmeal and a delicate, buttery sauce with toasted pine nuts. The presentation was simple but artful: The fillets were graced with a single sprig of rosemary.

From the regular menu, mushroom caps topped with crab meat for a first course were as good as this dish gets. Small button mushrooms had been halved and covered with delicately seasoned back fin. For the nonseafood eaters, the Town Dock has a gorgeous filet mignon, juicy and grilled pink as ordered, with the perfect accompaniments: a baked tomato, the last of the local ones, and sauteed mushrooms. This was the sort of food you'd expect from Hampton's former chef if he was going au naturel.

But then there was a house specialty, the Town Dock crab bisque, which had lovely lumps of crab but was so salty I couldn't eat it. French onion soup was not only incredibly salty, it had completely soggy croutons and cheese too gummy to eat. The Town Dock cioppino, a fish stew made of lobster meat, scallops and shrimp with a tomato-based broth was, yes, so oversalted most of it never got consumed.

Oysters au gratin tasted as if they had been baked with Cheez Whiz -- although they, and all the seafood, were fresher than fresh.

You have to wonder what the old-timers think of their Town Dock Restaurant now serving balsamic sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. I liked it, but not as much as the elegant Dijon vinaigrette. The salads were completely traditional but nicely done: really good lettuces, those local tomatoes, crisp cucumbers cut on the diagonal, finely grated carrots. But then they were loaded down with a ton of heavily seasoned croutons, which if they weren't packaged sure tasted like it.

Side dishes included fries seasoned with Old Bay, so salty no one could eat them, creamed spinach that had been oversalted, coleslaw drowning in mayonnaise and -- surprise -- beautifully steamed fresh broccoli dusted with grated cheese and no salt that I could taste. This is one schizophrenic kitchen.

Desserts are very rich, very sweet and didn't appeal to me much. A burnt-sugar apple cake tasted too much like burnt sugar for me (admittedly, this is a very personal taste and you may love it). The custard sauce that decorated the cake, the chocolate silk pie and the chocolate cheesecake was tasteless. You might as well wait for the handsome, chocolate-covered strawberries that come with the check.

I'm sure Mr. and Mrs. Rork have great plans for the Town Dock that simply haven't been put into effect yet. After all, they took it over at high season, and they could hardly be expected to close while they renovated or changed around the menu in the middle of the summer. I'm looking forward to having an excuse to revisit it if they do make changes.

They could start by taking away the salt cellar from whatever sous-chef wields it. They could upgrade the tasteless house white wine. Butter plates would be nice if you're going to serve rolls before dinner. (If I break the roll, where do I put the other half? On the bare table? Where do I put the butter knife?)

What I wouldn't do is change the looks of the place much. It has plenty of charm as is: several levels leading down to a weathered deck; revolving ceiling fans and pretty, old-fashioned light fixtures; simple table settings; a few plants. It looks the way you want a shore restaurant to look, with just a little bit more class.

Next: Vito's Cafe

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