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.
Watson turns this béchamel into a cheeseless mornay sauce by adding egg yolks; these are optional, but they provide both volume and richness. For the full effect, beat two yolks in a medium-size bowl and whisk into them a half cup of the warm (not hot) sauce. Slowly pour this mixture into the rest of the sauce, whisking all the while. Let stand at room temperature.
As final flavoring Watson adds lobster meat sautéed in butter and sherry and seasoned with paprika; this is also optional, but it makes the dish both fancier and truer to its French origins. Dice a quarter cup of cooked and picked lobster meat and sauté it in two teaspoons of butter over medium heat for a minute or two. Pour over the meat two teaspoons of sherry and a quarter teaspoon of paprika, and heat for a minute or so, just until the wine evaporates; add the meat to the waiting sauce. If you skip the lobster, add the paprika along with the salt and pepper.
To finish the dish, arrange one pound of sole fillets (you can use any delicate white flatfish; Watson uses Maryland flounder, despite the dish's name) one layer deep in water just to cover. Stir into the water, if you like, a teaspoon or two more of sherry (Watson goes through a lot of sherry). Poach the fillets at a very gentle simmer for five minutes, or until they are white all the way through. Lift out the fillets and place them in a shallow baking dish large enough to hold them in one layer. Heat the broiler and set an oven rack six or seven inches below the flame. Whip the cream just until soft peaks form, and carefully fold a quarter cup of the whipped cream into the warm sauce. (I call for more cream than is needed because I seldom have luck whipping less.) Spoon just enough sauce over the fish to cover it evenly. Place the dish under the broiler for one to three minutes, just until the sauce begins to bubble and a few brown spots appear (any longer and the sauce might separate). Serve immediately.
A millionaire property developer named Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, bought Marconi in 2000 and announced that he would move it into his flagship building, a 1962 tower designed by Mies van der Rohe. Even though Angelos has done well by both the team and Baltimore's downtown, and even though New York City's Four Seasons restaurant derives much of its glory from its setting in a Mies building, such a plan can only come as distressing news. Marconi has a serenely unstudied perfection, inextricably linked to its neighborhood. That might not be movable.
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