Say it ain't so, Morris Martick

August 14, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Morris Martick - master of French cuisine, living legend and the most stubborn and eccentric restaurateur in Baltimore - claims he has closed his famously unusual and critically acclaimed maison on West Mulberry Street after 38 years. He laid off his last waitress and kitchen helper last week. He's made his last pot of sweet potato soup. You can't order Martick's bouillabaisse anymore. He's done.

C'est la fin.

"For real?" I ask.

"What's the point?" Martick says with a shrug. "I'm 68 and a half years old."

"No, you're not," I say. "You're 86 and a half years old."

"Right. I'm an institution in Baltimore."

"I agree," I say. "There's no question you're an institution. But are you really closing the restaurant?"

"I don't like the grind. It takes 13 to 14 hours a day to run this place - I make all my own stocks, do all my own shopping - and I make maybe $5 an hour."

"But that's always been the case, hasn't it?"

"The restaurant is closed."

"But this is your bliss," I say. "Don't you still ..."

"No," he cuts me off. "I don't."

".. have it any more?"

Please understand the importance of this news, assuming that Morris Martick means what he says and that he's simply not in a summer slump aggravated by the subprime mess. Let's assume he's not gaming this columnist into a premature obit that will send all those lapsed Martick's fans scrambling in a panic to Mulberry Street. Morris te Culinary Magician might be pulling a Brett Favre here, but I have too much respect for the man to call him insincere.

For now, for the record, he says he's done.

"And that's a big story," he adds.

Martick's Restaurant Francais opened in 1970, a former speak-easy and bohemian joint with only a few small windows - tiles of stained glass created by the owner - and a small kitchen on the second floor. You press a doorbell to gain entrance. If you're lucky, Morris Martick greets you, shows you to a table, presents a handwritten menu, takes your order and rushes upstairs - the floor on which he was born 86 and a half years ago - to cook it.

"It's not for everyone," Martick has been heard to tell tourists who ring the bell, step in from the street and find themselves the only customers.

Those who flinched and went elsewhere never knew what they were missing - salmon Florentine, chicken marsala, rack of lamb with horseradish cream, beef burgundy. His food is still great. The country-style pate is still as good as any I've had, reminiscent of the classic appetizers of Normandy and Brittany. Writing his final review in the City Paper just last month, Richard Gorelick raved about the place, saying Martick's was brighter, cleaner and busier than he had remembered it, and he raved about the service and food. Almost all entrees, Gorelick noted, come "piled with market-fresh, lightly saut?ed broccoli, carrots and peppers. That Martick does his own shopping is something he doesn't bother explaining on the menu - it's just what's done."

Gorelick also issued one of those warnings that come with every Martick's review: "For how truly good the meal was at Martick's, it really is nutty, in a Dickensian chipped-plate and chipped-glass way. And, boy, if you can't relax about stuff like that, please don't go there."

So, with a nice review just a few weeks old, why is Morris Martick talking retirement?

He's fit and trim, and I found him still sharp-witted when I visited on Monday.

"I do the Jumble every day," he says, referring to the word challenge that appears in The Sun. "I don't go to bed until I figure it out."

Martick placed with his bony hands several documents along the restaurant's wooden bar - city housing code violations from May and July, referring to flaking paint on the restaurant's exterior, on its cornice and brick wall.

At first, Martick claimed the violations would cost him $30,000 in repairs. But when we went outside and examined the building, it didn't seem all that bad. The place could use a paint job, some new gutters and trim. The restaurant's main sign, the work of an art student several years ago, should be repainted. Martick seems befuddled by the code violations. He wonders what flaking paint has to do with serving great food to the public. (A city health inspector checked out the restaurant last week and gave it a passing grade.)

While Martick's is within the city's big west-side redevelopment plan, it has been spared from a taking by the Baltimore Development Corp. "I consider Martick's an institution," the BDC's president, M.J. "Jay" Brodie, told The Sun two years ago, "and as long as he is running his restaurant, the city would not move to take that property."

So Martick's has been protected by official deference.

Monday, Morris Martick and an attorney visited the BDC to speak to officials about the possibility of the city purchasing his property.

"Maybe I should sell it to Peter Angelos," Martick says.

"Well," I say. "He bought Marconi's but it hasn't reopened."

"The way I run the restaurant, no one would want it," Martick says. "I don't have what they call 'the numbers.' " Then he mentions the things that make Martick's Martick's - no recipes, everything fresh and made to order by the owner himself, lots of wine, lots of garlic and other herbs, no salt in the stocks, lots of "instinct and feel" in the preparation of dishes, a bit of mystery and magic when they suddenly appear on tables.

Making great food takes time, Martick says.

"I'm what you call a survivor," he says. "I don't give up too easily. But I don't have the will to handle all of the problems anymore - that's for someone who's young."

We'll see. Instinct and feel tells me we haven't heard the end of Martick's Restaurant Francais.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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