What happens when an ambitious restaurateur ignores conventional wisdom and invests a great deal of money to create a high-end restaurant in an unlikely neighborhood? What if he selects a space that has housed a number of failed businesses and charges $25 to $35 per entre on a block that’s home to a 99-cent superstore and a thrift shop? These are questions I pondered during several meals at Morgan Song’s gorgeous Maritime Seafood & Grill, located on Fair Oaks Boulevard in the heart of Carmichael.
A hushed, elegant oasis from the whizzing traffic outside its windows, Maritime glows with its warm gold-beige walls and polished wood floors. The space is divided into several intimate dining rooms, and the atmosphere is so quiet it feels muffled, as if you’re dining inside a pillowcase. The cleanly painted walls are completely unadorned&emdash;blank canvases that offer no distraction from Song’s culinary artistry.
Song, who has created and run successful restaurants in San Francisco, Redding, Woodland and Vacaville, describes his food as nouvelle French cuisine, with influences from Japanese, European and American food traditions. The menu, which changes every two to three weeks, offers a handful of appetizers, about eight entres and several intriguing nightly specials.
Meals begin with a captivating amuse-bouche. One night, it was a doll-size glass mug filled with lobster bisque and a toothpick-speared rock shrimp. Rich and creamy, it afforded a pleasurable preview of things to come. Song’s mixed-greens salad was tossed with a lively, bright blood-orange vinaigrette, the perfect pick-me-up after days of sodden, dreary skies. Another noteworthy salad was composed of tenderly arranged arugula, whose brisk, aggressive flavor was tamed by a warm, crispy tower of polenta with a soft inner layer of Gorgonzola cheese. Halved, perfectly hard-boiled quail eggs formed a crisp square around the polenta, and dots of tomato vinaigrette speckled the plate.
Less impressive but equally beautiful was Song’s fried soft-shell crab appetizer, served with whole-grain mustard and a silky bell pepper pure. Leggy and attractively arranged on the plate, the warm crab tasted dull and bland. Other seafood dishes were more encouraging, especially the beautifully grilled salmon fillet, garnished with salty salmon caviar and served with pured carrots and crispy snap peas.
Meat eaters are not ignored at Maritime. The lamb shank was a slam-dunk, bathed in a buttery, tomatoey dream of a sauce. The molasses-marinated hanger steak, cut into pristine little chunks and napped with an intense, earthy sauce, was so tender I could easily cut through it with a butter knife. However, it was shockingly rare, even though I ordered it medium rare. (This also was the case with the puff pastry-wrapped beef fillet, which, although sumptuous and elegant, was far too undercooked for my taste.) The presentation of the hanger steak was perhaps the prettiest of the evening, with artfully arranged, saucerlike chunks of king oyster mushroom, a timbale of Yukon purple potato topped with fried beet strands and a pile of sauted rainbow chard tumbling prettily out of a porcelain spoon.
Portions are restrained, so it’s likely you’ll have room for dessert. My favorite sweet was Song’s simple Meyer lemon meringue tartlet. Its bright-yellow lemon curd celebrated the floral, complex personality of the thin-skinned Meyer lemon, and the meringue&emdash;gently browned and appealingly swirly&emdash;had just the right amount of sugar to offset the tanginess of the lemon curd. I also enjoyed the trio of crÃ¨mes brÃ»les, adorned with pulled-sugar twigs that burst out of the vanilla version like amber-colored shooting stars. The fudgy amaretto crÃ¨me brÃ»le had the consistency of a dense mousse and was creamy and satisfying, while the raspberry brÃ»le, light and smooth, offered a fruity, sweet end note to a rich and interesting meal.
The young staff was surprisingly knowledgeable. Dishes were explained confidently, and wine recommendations were spot on. One waiter thoughtfully discussed the similarities and differences between several cuts of beef, revealing a deeper familiarity with food and cooking technique than you often find in a dining room staff member. It’s clear the waiters are proud of Song and his kitchen.
Song has set the stage for exquisite (and very pricey) fine dining in Carmichael. It remains to be seen if his daring leap of faith will be successful. If you want to experience local, dynamic culinary talent in an elegant, intimate environment, make the drive to Maritime Seafood & Grill. It’s well worth the trip.
Call the sitter: Suitable for adults; leave the kids at home
Food for thought: Try the luscious gnocchi
Love is in the air: Maritime is romantic, snug and quiet
Maritime Seafood & Grill: 6440 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 489-8464; maritimeseafoodsac.com
Hours: Sundayâ€“Thursday 5â€“9 p.m., Fridayâ€“Saturday 5â€“9:30 p.m.