Michael's evokes good Old Baltimore restaurants

restaurant review

October 19, 2008|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Michael's Steak & Lobster House in Bayview belongs in the second tier of Old Baltimore restaurants. These are the ones many of us have forgotten about, the ones that haven't acquired the landmark status that places like Matthew's Pizza in Highlandtown and Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn in Essex enjoy.

I'm not sure that's because they are any less good. I have a friend who blames it on something he calls "the Obrycki effect." This is when a restaurant critic or travel writer from a major city to our north comes to visit, asks the hotel concierge where to go for steamed crabs, and gets directed to, say, Obrycki's. He or she gives it a good review, writers in other cities pick it up, and pretty soon Obrycki's is the only place tourists know to get steamed crabs.

Anyway, we could just as soon send people to places like Michael's for Old Baltimore atmosphere, great waitresses and steamed crabs. After all, as Michael's ad says, it's "minutes from the Inner Harbor."

Right. Fifty-six minutes, with the traffic on Eastern Avenue.

But that's not Michael's fault. It continues to do its thing, serving up enormous portions of food at surprisingly low prices. You forget how great a classic Baltimore waitress can be until you run into one at a place like Michael's - someone who is an ally of yours against the bartender ("I put in your drink order, but she's so slow you might as well order your dinners while we're waiting") and the kitchen ("You sure you want that appetizer platter? Someone back there has eaten up all the spinach pies. I can bring you something else"). Someone who is so good-natured you want to tip 30 percent, even though four of you were seated at a table for six - with a reservation - because no one had bussed the empty tables for four. Someone who brings you a basket of the restaurant's bread before you ask, and refills it immediately when you empty it. Someone, and you had forgotten how important this is, who has been waitressing for decades, not for a few months, and who sees it as a decent job, not something she's just doing until she gets through school.

You forget how pleasant eating at a place like Michael's can be, in spite of the worn red carpet that needs vacuuming, the wood paneling beside your corner table that's coming off the wall, and the Tiffany-style lamp over the bar. The dining room is mostly filled, but people are talking in quiet voices or are too busy eating, so it's not at all noisy. The captain's chairs are comfy, the white table linens help absorb whatever noise there is, and the lighting is pleasantly dim.

The menu of mostly American food is enormous. You think to yourself, "Prices aren't bad here; in fact, $17.95 is pretty good for a T-bone steak dinner with two sides." And that's before you notice it's a 40-ounce steak.

But you'll find the real bargains on the specials list. You know how at fancy restaurants the daily specials are always $10 more than any entree on the regular menu? At Michael's, every night has different specials at much lower prices. So, on the Wednesday night we were there, we could get two enormous lump crab cakes, broiled a golden brown, and two sides for $16.95. I've had crab cakes made with more flavorful crab, but for the price, these couldn't be beat.

Another Wednesday night special was a 1 1/2 -pound lobster stuffed with crab imperial. Michael's crab imperial is kind of mayonnaise-y but not bad. It shows up again on another special, an enormous pork chop broiled with two imperial-stuffed shrimp ($18.95).

Basically, the seafood we tried was worth the money. I'd recommend ordering the lobster, crab or shrimp over the meat. And if you want steamed crabs, they are available year round. The night we were there they were $60 a dozen.

The 40-ounce T-bone steak looked impressive, and it was cooked exactly as ordered, but my friend bent his fork on it. Some steaks are tough but have a great flavor. This didn't. I didn't like the taste of the pork chop much either, but that may have been the seasoning, which was nothing I recognized.

Does another restaurant in Baltimore have Brussels sprouts as a regular side dish on its menu? This isn't a seasonal menu, either. You could also get pickled beets, apple sauce, Greek-style green beans (cooked with tomatoes to mush), a homemade-tasting potato salad or coleslaw, and potatoes one of three ways (wrapped in foil and baked, mashed, or fat steak fries that were kind of limp).

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