A restaurant that can survive more than three decades is bound to be doing something right. That doesn’t necessarily mean with the food.
On a recent weekday evening, Michael’s Cafe, a mainstay in Timonium since 1984, was packed to the brim. Seeing that boisterous crowd made me think a memorable meal was mere moments away. Such thoughts gradually dissipated over the next few hours.
Still, the buzz and bustle in the place certainly impressed. So did the noise. After being shown to a tightly packed room where conversation would have been a challenge, a kindly host quickly led our party to an alternative spot on the opposite side. (It was too rainy to try the attractive outdoor dining spaces.)
Never mind that, after passing fun-looking portions of the complex decorated with sports motifs, we ended up in an alcove resembling the faceless breakfast nook of a low-priced hotel chain. And never mind that we were seated right next to a kitchen door. As soon as our young server appeared, attentive and droll throughout the meal, we felt special anyway.
Cocktails largely hit their mark — the “filthy martini,” a house specialty, tasted more like a filthy vermouth, so we traded it in for a respectable old-fashioned — and so did the starters.
A stack of fried green tomatoes provided a good deal of freshness, flavor and, with a cornmeal breading, texture. The addition of jumbo lump crab meat seemed superfluous, but worked well with a dish completed by field greens and a lemon beurre blanc. Also delivering a good taste was the burrata, sharing a plate with such charmers as yellow grape tomatoes and very crunchy herb crostini.
Pan-seared sea scallops, nestled on a spaghetti squash bruschetta and topped with crisp crumbles of prosciutto, showed a certain finesse. Nice-sized coconut shrimp could have used greater flavor on their own, since the accompanying vinegar-heavy dipping sauce was of little benefit.
With our main courses, things got more uneven.
The ranchero salad, well-filled with greens, avocado, tomatoes and more, provided a pleasant, if unremarkable, foundation for adding a piece of likewise pleasant, if unremarkable, rockfish.
A filet of seared halibut exuded more personality, not so much on its own as in tandem with roasted carrots and a cauliflower puree that picked up energy from a beurre blanc energized with sambal oelek, a potent chili sauce.
A tough, indifferent pork chop was done no favors by an abundance of a gooey mushroom-dijon gravy. Haricots verts and roasted fingerling potatoes, however, completed the dish very nicely.
The chicken marsala looked a mess, the chicken pieces sadly submerged beneath enough sauce to fill a dozen orders. Once excavated, the boneless breasts revealed little taste. And what was advertised as rice pilaf gave every indication of being plain old rice saturated with, you guessed it, marsala.
After that, a wow dessert would have been welcome, but the ho-hum list of options deflated us — the inevitable bread pudding, cheesecake, etc. (We did get a chuckle out of seeing the apple pie described as “a la mode with ice cream.”)
We finally settled on a couple. The warm chocolate brownie sundae must have been prepared by the kitchen’s marsala team — way too much chocolate sauce and whipped cream. But a flavor-rich scoop of cherry ice cream from the Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm delivered good old-fashioned pleasure.
When all was said and eaten, we wondered if we had simply sampled the wrong menu items on the wrong night. Whatever the case, the amount of lackluster food (at full-luster prices) gave us pause.
But there’s no arguing with the fact that Michael’s Cafe continues to be a big draw. Maybe the next time we feel the pull, we’ll get a better idea of what the fuss is all about.
Address: 2119 York Road, Timonium
Contact: 410-252-2022, michaelscafe.com
Prices: Appetizers $8.50 to $16; entrees $19 to $44
Ambience: At peak hours, the main dining rooms are alive with hustle-bustle; outdoor seating is also available.
Service: Our server was a gem of efficiency and amiability.
Special diets: Gluten-free preparations available.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes