After a five-month hiatus, a popular chef is back on the Annapolis restaurant scene.
The entrepreneurial and culinary skills of Russell Brown, which for years were invested in his popular West Annapolis restaurant, Northwoods, are now being put to use at a new venue: The Rockfish restaurant in Eastport.
Brown said goodbye to his 23-year-old Annapolis restaurant in August when it fell victim to the poor economy. Last month, he began his new position as general manager and executive chef at The Rockfish, which specializes in seafood and American classics.
James King, a Republican state delegate from Anne Arundel County who co-owns The Rockfish with Greg Casten, said Brown is "wearing two hats" in his new position.
"We want the focus to be twofold," he said. "One, to be helping with some of the menu creation, but at the same time, we want him in the front of the house. He knows so many people in town that he should have some type of fore presence as well."
Brown said he hopes his presence will attract plenty of former regulars at Northwoods. He's already spotted several familiar faces and seats four to five tables of Northwoods customers a night, he says.
"People are like, 'Hey, we found you, finally! Where were you? Where have you been?' It's just been great to see a lot of my old regular customers coming in here," he said.
Dorothy Sedorka, who started frequenting Northwoods shortly after it opened, is one of Brown's longtime customers who followed him to The Rockfish. Sedorka and her husband, David Scuccimarra, used Northwoods as a place to gather for birthdays, promotions and other milestones. They first visited the restaurant 23 years ago to celebrate their engagement and ate there every two weeks until it closed. The couple had never been to The Rockfish, but once they heard Brown would be working there, they stopped by for a meal.
"Russell told the waiter what we wanted to drink, and the waiter said, 'Are you sure?' He said, 'After 25 years, I'm sure,' " Sedorka said. "I'm just so glad that someone has tapped into his expertise."
Along with his popularity, Brown hopes to use his business and cooking experience to boost the restaurant's success.
"[The Rockfish] has been successful and still is successful, and really my job here is to bring my talent and my knowledge of the business to the operation," he said. "Improve things where I see they need to be improved."
So far, the improvements have ranged from new napkin-folding techniques to seven or eight additions to the menu, which Brown said will likely be available by Valentine's Day. Most of the dishes are his creations and were served at Northwoods. Among them are the seafood roll, salmon a la grecque, and his version of beef Wellington. "We're tweaking the menu a little bit, just adding some of my touches, different sauces, things like that," he said.
Brown graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1978 and served as executive chef at Annapolis' Maryland Inn. He opened Northwoods in 1985 with his former business partner, Gonzalo Fernandez. Brown said The Rockfish has a better chance of being successful than Northwoods, partly because of the location. The Rockfish is also much bigger and can accommodate those looking for night life with a bar and lounge, which Northwoods did not have.
As for a bigger role for Brown, King said that co-ownership of the restaurant might be a possibility. King became partner in 2006 after Casten and Charlie Bauer opened The Rockfish in December 2004. Bauer died of a brain tumor almost a year ago, and Casten and King have been giving the staff time to adjust to the change, King said.
Brown said becoming partner would be a "great opportunity. . . . I am already treating it like it's my own. That's the way I do things, anyway."
"The combination of what we currently have and what [Brown] has to bring, I think, will really make a perfect dining experience," King said.