For flavors you can't find at the mall, try Martick's

This Just In...

March 01, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

A WOMAN called and asked me how to go about having dinner at Martick's -- the old maison on Mulberry Street with the speak-easy ambiance -- as if she needed a Sherpa guide to help her negotiate a treacherous, narrow mountain pass. I understood the question. Martick's is not in Harborplace or Little Italy or a suburban shopping center. It's a funky little joint in a funky section of the city, and you have to be in the right frame of mind for a pilgrimage there. As I heard the owner-chef-grand vizier Morris Martick tell a pair of wide-eyed, first-time customers just yesterday: "It's not for everyone."

The woman on the phone seemed to fear that her husband would be among the "not for." He was not keen on urban adventures, she said, and on the couple's few free nights, he wanted his dining-out experience to be successful.

I understood that, too. Some people just aren't into "atmosphere" and the unfamiliar. Some people want ... Applebee's.

"I've never been there," the woman said of Martick's. "I know it's like this Baltimore institution, but is it any good? Is it OK? It's not in a great neighborhood, is it?"

I hadn't been to Martick's in perhaps a year, so I was hesitant to assert, a la Michelin, that it was worth the trip. So yesterday I conducted an investigation.

Martick's is one of those unique places that seems like it has been there forever, but it has been a restaurant only since 1970. Before that it was Martick's Lower Tyson Street Saloon, Baltimore's beatnik venue until Morris got tired of intellectual pretensions and went off to France to learn something about cooking. He learned a great deal and remains a culinary student.

Before it was a barroom, Martick's was a corner grocery store operated by Morris' parents, and a place known for bootleg booze during Prohibition. The proprietor was born upstairs. Upstairs is where Morris prepares meals.

He's somewhere in his mid- to late-70s, wiry and fit, and reminiscent of a bald Klaus Kinski. He's often the person who opens the door -- sometimes in a T-shirt, sometimes in a flannel shirt and khakis -- and the person who greets you -- sometimes pleasantly, sometimes gruffly, sometimes distractedly -- and takes your order -- while sitting nearby and taking notes -- and prepares your meal.

In my experience, Martick's has always been good to very good, even excellent. What can I say? I've never had a failed meal in the place. The restaurant is hardly noticeable as you drive by on Mulberry, between Howard and Park, in a part of town where you're apt to encounter a panhandler. There is no grand front window through which happy diners might be seen indulging in trendy entrees on white tablecloths. You have to press a doorbell to get in the place, as if Martick's was still a 1920s speak-easy. Morris opens the door, hands you a piece of paper with a scribbled menu and, if he's in a hurry, he asks you to seat yourself.

Sometimes you and your companion are the only customers for lunch or dinner.

Morris Martick does not have a heavy monthly electrical bill because the restaurant is often dark, illuminated during the day only by light through stained-glass windows and from hanging Parisian-looking lamps over the tables and Tiffany-looking lamps over the bar. The atmosphere is like that of some small bistro tucked behind the train station in Lyon, or a hangout for starving artists and poets in Montmartre. The walls and windows are covered with an array of eclectic artwork, and yesterday my eye went to a collector's item -- an old metal sign for Friendship Airport. (That was the fine name of the Baltimore area's prime airport before the technocrats and marketing geniuses decided it would be better called by an acronym.)

I asked Morris about the large espresso maker that sits, covered in tchotchkes, against the western wall of the restaurant. I've always been curious about it. It looks like something that belongs in a galleria in Milan.

"My bar patrons years ago told me what I needed was an espresso machine," Morris said. "So I got one, but they were all drunks and no one ever ordered an espresso."

All of this -- the doorbell, the darkness, the curious decor -- is fun, but I've been to Martick's when the whole place seemed worn and frayed, the tablecloths in need of laundering, the spoons in need of a wash. But I've been there other times -- as was the case yesterday -- when its tables were all neatly set, its chairs orderly and its bottles of spirits and wine standing at clean attention along the old bar.

There was one diner when we arrived, a man wearing a topcoat because, on this blustery day in Baltimore, Martick's was on the chilly side. "Beef burgundy," the man said when I asked what had been on his plate. "And it was excellent."

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