Saturday, June 23, 2007

Service? What's That?

Last night I went out to dinner with my friend Stacey and her friend Alex. Friday night at 7pm is a bad time for dining out in Baltimore if one doesn't have a reservation, but we gave it a shot. Alex wanted seafood, mentioning crab cakes in particular, so I did a quick Google search to see where they might be found in the northern Baltimore County area. I knew Ocean Pride would be packed, and they were. We definitely didn't want to wait 45 minutes, so headed further up York Road. I had never been to Michael's Café, but read that they had crabcakes, so we gave it a go. Unfortunately for us, they could accomodate us right away. At least, we got to sit down. Actual accomodation was a long time in coming.

Right away, our waitress came up to recite a list of specials in her bizarrely nasal Minnie Mouse with strep throat voice. She took Alex's drink order for an iced tea and left. A minute or so later, she brought the tea, and a small plate of butter, and then disappeared for a bit. Which was fine. Since one of us is constantly talking, I needed the extra time to grab a minute here and there to actually concentrate on the menu. Bread eventually came, but Minnie Mouse disappeared fast without taking our order. After what seemed like an eternity, she returned and we requested the seared Ahi tuna, calamari, and crab/shrimp dip appetizers. Alex and I ordered crab cakes for our entrees, and Stacey decided on scallops. And because some of us really needed a drink, I selected a bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel, very nicely priced at $25.

Alex's side salad came first, a decent-enough looking mix of greens and other salad veggies, with dressing on the side. Unfortunately, it looked as if the dressing cup had come off of someone else's plate - it was barely half-full. Alex wanted extra dressing, so needed the waitress. When she arrived with our wine (presenting it to Stacey, even though I was the one who ordered it), her response to the request for extra dressing was, "no." Considering we had been sitting in the restaurant for about 45 minutes already and had only gotten one salad, some rolls, and now wine, I didn't think Minnie had any right to attempt humor. She did bring the dressing with the appetizers, which we fell upon with vigor.

The ahi tuna was quite nice, albeit outrageously priced at $12. (One can get a more generous portion of even o-toro for less at a reputable sushi restaurant.) Seven long thin slices of tuna, raw in the middle and crusted with peppercorns and sesame seeds, lay atop mesclun greens dressed in a nice soy vinaigrette, with small dollops of wasabi sauce and a Thousand Island-looking aioli at the compass points. The tuna was delicious, as were the greens, and a larger portion of both would have made a nice dinner in itself. The menu claims that the calamari is "hand breaded," but I believe those hands worked for a frozen seafood plant somewhere far away. The adequate portion of squid, both rings and tentacles, were unexceptional, the bland breading tasting of nothing, and the accompanying marinara was merely something red and wet in which to dip the seafood. As for the crab and shrimp dip, I was hard-pressed to find any actual seafood in the pink-colored cream cheese goo, but it was tasty enough slathered on the crisp slices of garlic bread that came with it.

Surprisingly, the entrees came not long after the dinner plates were cleared. At least the kitchen's timing was good, if not the waitress'. Each of us got two vegetables with our protein, but somehow my green beans ended up on Alex's plate. Minnie Mouse went to fetch some for me and actually did arrive before I was finished eating. My single crab cake was full of lump crab, with very little binder, but it was overall fairly bland and needed more seasoning of some sort. The side of tartar sauce tasted weird, and I didn't bother with the cocktail sauce, since I don't think it goes with crabcakes. The potato, baked in foil, was predictably arid, but the beans, once they arrived, were cooked perfectly crisp and bright green; slicked with a touch of fat of some sort, all they needed was a bit of salt to bring out their flavor. Stacey's scallops came in a ghost-white creamy wine sauce, but the generous portion was well-cooked and flavorful. Her side of beets came from a can. Alex did not comment on the quality of her entree, but I did notice her request for mayonnaise (presumably for her fries) was never fufilled.

Minnie Mouse's appearances at our table were sporadic, and she never seemed to be around when we needed her. For instance, when our appetizers arrived, she still had not brought Stacy a place setting or napkin. After her fork ended up with the dirty appetizer dishes, she was not given a replacement with which to eat her entree until she managed to flag someone down. When pouring my wine, Minnie slopped it all over the base of my glass, and I was afraid to lift it lest I dribble on my shirt. She offered to bring a napkin to clean it, but that took 10 minutes. By the end of the meal, we were completely exasperated and opted to find dessert elsewhere. It was close to 9:30 p.m. when we left the restaurant, and I noticed the table next to ours was turned over twice while we were there. Oddly enough, they had the same waitress.

Although parts of the meal were enjoyable, I can't say I plan to return to Michael's Café. It's a standard, run-of-the-mill Maryland seafood restaurant, somewhat dingy, with mostly unexceptional food and poor service. We were seated within sniffing distance of the restrooms (which are badly located behind a short partition and which open directly into the dining room) and practically on top of a service station with various piles of whatnot on it but not useful things like napkins and silverware. Some attention to detail was evident in the meal: the green beans; the nice crisp dinner rolls; the perfectly cooked tuna. But other signs suggested the kitchen was on auto-pilot: the half-full salad dressing; the canned beets; the dull calamari. I can't blame the fact that it was prime time on a Friday night - the place was full but not busy, there was no line to get in, and the pace overall seemed to be quite leisurely. Nobody looked harried, distraught, or overworked.

Michael's is a place that has its regulars, and indeed I knew one gentleman who confessed to eating there every weekend, at the bar. That's well and good for them, if they like what they get. They can have it.

Michael's Cafe Raw Bar & Grill
2119 York Rd
Timonium, MD 21093
(410) 252-2022

Michael's Cafe Raw Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon
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