Bless Morris Martick.
As the 79-year-old chef approaches his eighth decade, he's still turning out some of the tastiest, most eclectic Gallic-inspired chow in Baltimore. And he's preparing it by himself in the un-air-conditioned kitchen of the 19th-century townhouse where he was born.
"When they repealed Prohibition in 1932, we were the first people in Baltimore to get a liquor license," he says. "We started out as a grocery store in 1917, but we were really bootleggers."
Which would explain why his eponymous restaurant feels like a speakeasy. Nobody walks into Martick's. You make reservations, you show up and you ring the doorbell. Someone peeps through a window (to be sure you're not Eliot Ness or Carrie Nation, of course) and then ushers you in (you hope).
The room is dark, the bar is long and the tin ceiling is low. Light from votives barely casts a glow on the food. But with this mysterious, exciting atmosphere, who cares?
In the kitchen, Martick deserves a gold star for unusual combinations. His sweet-potato soup (described as "award-winner, Baltimore's best" on the handwritten, wrinkled menu) was not the typical simple cream soup I expected. It contained a melange of string beans, sliced mushrooms, carrots and broccoli swimming around in a sweet broth that was almost thick enough to require a fork.
In a salmon special, an unorthodox pairing of peaches and mushrooms made a sweet, textured sauce for the well-prepared fish.
Martick does good work on traditional combinations, too. A side salad of cucumbers, thick mushroom slices, pieces of asparagus and artichoke hearts came drenched in a salty, tangy vinaigrette on fresh lettuce. A bouillabaisse was completely delicious. It combined a little of everything: shrimp, white fish, mussels, mushrooms, potato chunks and carrots, all in a tomato-based broth seasoned with pepper, bay leaf, garlic and a hint of tarragon.
Martick only let us down in the dessert department. The one we tried - bread pudding - was marred by a watery chocolate sauce. As it was, the pudding had more than enough chewy texture and buttery flavor to suffice without a chocolate sauce.
Our server - surprisingly, the only one working on an active weeknight - gets high marks for making sure the meal was properly paced. It was only after we looked up and saw that we were the last ones left that we realized closing time had approached. He had never rushed us.
He also was clearly enthusiastic about the food he served and took great care to wrap up all leftovers - a tricky thing without the usual foam containers.
Although Martick does not mention the word retirement, at the age of 80 it's entirely possible that he'll no longer want to cook for a houseful of strangers. So, take advantage of the legend now, before it's gone. The experience is quite remarkable.
Where: 214 W. Mulberry St., Baltimore
Open: For lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Prices: Appetizers $2 to $8.50; entrees $13 to $20