Other than Maine lobster, it's hard to think of a seafood as closely linked to a state as crab is to Maryland—just ask anyone who has been to a waterside Baltimore crab boil or had crab cakes packed with freshly picked Chesapeake blue crab. But I recently discovered another, equally hallowed Baltimore seafood legend at its birthplace—Maison Marconi, a restaurant that occupies a grand old brownstone and is hardly changed from the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken held forth over the lamb chops. Any change in the décor or management elicits comment from the Baltimore Sun, Mencken's paper; the death of a veteran waiter last year prompted a regular diner to tell the Sun, "He had a flair when he poured the chocolate sauce over the ice cream."
The dish with which Marconi is synonymous is lobster cardinale, a big lobster whose meat has been mixed with a sherry cream sauce, stuffed back into the shell, and run under the grill. I was struck by how light the dish seemed, given what's in it, and how easy it was to do justice to what looked like an awfully big portion. And I was yet more taken with its poorer relative, sole cardinale, made with the same sauce enrobing the fish fillet like a plush blanket.
The variation with sole demonstrated how nicely sherry cream sauce—a Maryland hallmark, used not just in many Marconi dishes but also in the famous crab Maryland—takes to different kinds of fish and seafood. Keith Watson, Marconi's chef, learned his recipe from Tony Sartori, the previous chef, with whom he apprenticed at the age of eighteen (Sartori, born in the northern Italian city of Piacenza, started at Marconi when he was twenty and stayed forty-two years). His description made me want to try making it. The cardinale sauce at Marconi is less elaborate than the French original, which is named for the red of cooked lobster (not, as restaurant lore has it, for a Baltimore cardinal who ate there), and usually includes lobster fumet and truffle essence. Watson instead makes a simple béchamel, flavored with sherry, paprika, and diced lobster meat, which derives a pillowy texture from the folding in of a bit of whipped cream.
I've streamlined Watson's restaurant-kitchen method, to encourage rediscovery of the sturdy versatility of simple white sauce (far less rich than today's butter-filled reduction sauces), taking a basic béchamel from Shirley Corriher's invaluable CookWise. For four portions, first chill a half cup of heavy whipping cream and a bowl and beaters. In a medium saucepan heat two cups of milk just to a simmer, stirring to be sure it doesn't scorch, and let stand off the heat for five minutes. In another saucepan make a roux: melt four tablespoons of butter, stir in a quarter cup of flour, and cook over a low flame, stirring constantly, for two to three minutes. Don't let it brown. Remove the roux from the heat and pour in the hot milk, using a strainer to get out any bits of skin. Whisk vigorously and add two teaspoons of sherry (I suggest a dry Spanish sherry; Watson uses a medium-sweet California one). Stir over medium heat until the sauce reaches a low simmer. Turn the heat very low and cook for another ten or so minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and season with salt and white pepper.