Morris Martick is a survivor. He'll tell you so himself. He opened his Restaurant Francais more than 20 years ago when Baltimore didn't have any places that served French food and no one wanted to lend him the money to finance it. He's survived the opening of any number of good restaurants and the closing for a long while of Mulberry Street, where his restaurant is located.
The amazing thing is that both Martick and his Restaurant Francais seem to have changed very little since my husband and I went there on our first anniversary, spent what was much too much money for us at the time, and found out the next day that our friends' 16-year-old son had gotten a job in the kitchen and had actually been the one who cooked our veal francais. Martick's is just as funky as it ever was.
The entrance, the dining room -- it all looks much the same to me, if a trifle dingier. You still have to know about Martick's to find it, the way you would a speakeasy in the '20s. There's no sign or windows to attract passers-by. The door is locked; you reach up and ring the doorbell above the door and someone comes to let you in.
The dim interior is as oddly appealing today as it was 20 years ago. A handsome mahogany bar runs along one side of the room. It's lit by a row of Tiffany lamps, their colorful patterns echoed by the stained-glass windows in the back of the room. Up a step and you're in the dining area, with its snakeskin-patterned wallpaper, riveted metal walls, pressed-tin ceiling and large folk art statue of a peasant woman holding a loaf of bread. As interior design, it either appeals or it doesn't. I'm quite nostalgic about the room myself, and wouldn't want to see a thing changed. But I have to admit it could be spruced up a bit and not lose any of its charm.
Leave your preconceptions about what a French restaurant should be at the door. What can you say about a kitchen that serves an excellent pate ($5) -- rustic and appealing -- with Ritz crackers and dill pickle spears? Or a place whose owner-chef wanders through the dining room in a paint-splattered black T-shirt, pants and tennis shoes, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup?
Martick got into the business when cooks didn't spend all their time arranging the food on your plate, worrying about the colors and prettying it up with pansies or baby orchids. Yet it's not French country cooking, hearty and simple. It's not anything but what Morris Martick feels like preparing.
That might be a classic dish like bouillabaisse -- or chicken orientale ($13), a decidedly un-French dish made of steamed fresh vegetables, strips of white meat, rice and a spicy, slightly sweet sauce. It might be blackened lamb ($13), in which Martick takes a boneless slice from the leg, pounds it until it's tender, chars it to a juicy pinkness with the Cajun spices that lend themselves better to lamb than fish, and sauces it with cream and a little Dijon mustard.
Feel like seafood? It would be hard to beat the thick, perfectly fresh salmon ($14) with thin slices of pear and a beurre blanc touched with fennel. But it's typical of Martick's that the lamb and salmon, two superior entrees, are accompanied by quartered red-skinned potatoes mixed with corn and sliced carrots and sort of glopped on the plate. Not bad, but definitely not what you'd expect.
No other category on the handwritten menu illustrates what an unusual French restaurant this is better than "Soupes." They include seafood, Thai, sweet potato and lentil ($3). That last is unlike any lentil soup I've had before. It's, well, a bowl of lentils and sliced carrots in a slightly sweet, slightly curried, thin liquid. Odd, but not as odd as the roasted red peppers vinaigrette ($4), a large mound of them, served hot instead of chilled or at room temperature.
Martick makes all the desserts himself. No artful patterns of raspberry sauce in creme anglaise pooled around a trendy slice of cake here. The defining characteristics of his desserts are richness and sweetness -- and not much daintiness. A cannoli had a smooth ricotta filling with no bits of anything (which I prefer) and lots of whipped cream. Profiteroles are as close as anything to a signature dish: The baby cream puff shells were eggy and tender, but little thought had been given to their looks. The kitchen just stuffed them full of ice cream, and plopped on some chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Shut your eyes and enjoy.
It's strange to think of Martick's as a Baltimore institution, along the lines of a Haussner's or an Obrycki's. The off-the-cuff service has become part of the restaurant's charm, its offbeat owner part of the Martick's experience, the food delightful not in spite of, but because of, its eccentricities. Still, you might hesitate to take your Uncle Harry from New Jersey there. He might not understand.