Nancy and I have found one of the great seafood dishes around, the best I’ve had in a long, long time. Really. It is beyond delicious, and well worth the drive … and the wait.
Continuing our exploration of St. Mary’s County waterside restaurants, we drove down to Ridge for lunch at Courtney’s.
I like the building. I find it very evocative of an earlier time and, indeed, it’s set in a pretty waterside area on the Potomac that has passed its heyday. There’s an abandoned warehouse across the street, whence seafood once was sent by rail to Baltimore and beyond, and farm supplies were sent back for corn and tobacco fields.
We entered, sat down and looked around. The walls are lined with photographs, of local and national dignitaries and people like Willie Nelson, who is famous but not exactly a dignitary, along with testimonials to Tommy and Julia Courtney. The walls also bear testimonials and memorials to service members, the Apollo 13 astronauts, and first responders. There’s a salad bar, of all things. Courtney’s is comfortable but dated enough that Coastal Living chose it among the Best Local Dives on the water. A dive it is not, but it is showing its age, as am I.
The attraction is the food. St. Mary’s Paul, the local restaurant guru, raved about the rockfish stuffed with crab. Now rockfish is the premier fish of the Chesapeake region, and crab is the premier shellfish. Many well-informed and sober-minded people consider Chesapeake Bay crabs to be the best in the world. They have a point. You know rockfish stuffed with crab will be a good dish, but what you don’t know, what you don’t anticipate, is just how good it is.
Julia came and we each ordered the rockfish stuffed with crab, and chose the soup and the salad bar as our two sides. I also ordered a beer, just to be polite. We knew that there would be a wait.
First we each got a cup of the crab soup, which had a delicious broth. Next we went to the salad bar, which is much like other salad bars. I got lettuce, some cucumber slices, some of each of two kinds of slaw, some tinned beets (I always get tinned beets at salad bars and no where else, ever), and topped the salad with blue cheese dressing. The salad bar offered no surprises, except that one of the slaws had bits of crab legs (possibly ersatz crab legs), which was a treat.
Nancy and I waited and talked and looked at our iPhones and talked some more. Then Tommy emerged from the kitchen pushing a trolley on which were two sizzling platters that looked like this:
As I fumbled around to take a picture, Nancy, who was a step ahead of me, kept murmuring, “This is good. This is good.” Nancy grew up in Connecticut among Congregationalists, and is given to a gracious reserve rather than overstatement. I took a bite and was taken aback. Wow! The rockfish and crab had been broiled and covered with a sauce, a sprinkling of bell pepper and parsley, and lots of butter. I don’t know when I’ve had a better seafood dish, and I have eaten some great seafood dishes. It was up there with the crawfish-crusted redfish in New Orleans, or that dorado cooked by President Mitterand’s former personal chef in Playa Bonita in the Dominican Republic. The seafood was that-morning fresh as always at Courtney’s, the best seafood to be had, and prepared simply but oh, so beautifully. It came with yeast rolls and I was not the only one who sopped up every bit of the sauce with a roll.
How do the Courtneys do it?
Tommy gets up early and catches fish and crabs. He brings them back to the restaurant and cooks them. Julia waits on tables and serves, with whatever help they can get. That’s it. No delay from river to restaurant to kitchen to table. No middleman. Just the best seafood around served as fresh as it possibly can be, and cooked expertly.
Tommy and Julia Courtney opened Courtneys something like 46 years ago, maybe more, after they came back from Vietnam. The system of Tommy fishing and cooking every day was established then and still continues. Sometimes they’ve had help, but with the current exodus from the labor force, you can imagine how hard it is to find willing workers in Ridge right now. Now it seems that it’s just Tommy and Julia.
Look back at yourself 46 years ago. You moved a lot more quickly, didn’t you? Service isn’t fast at Courtney’s. It’s slow. You end up waiting a long time for your food. Nancy and I sat or wandered around inside. A wiser couple from Ft. Washington ordered and then went outside to look around. Next time, I think I may take a little cooler along, place my order, and then walk outside, grab a drink, and wander around the area for a while. Or just stand around the car and chat with Nancy and whoever else comes along. After 20 or 30 minutes we’ll amble back in and amuse ourselves with the soup and salad bar until the rockfish stuffed with crab arrives. I will take a bite and then thank God for these and all of my many blessings, not least Courtney’s rockfish stuffed with crabmeat.
Courtney’s takes time, but it also offers a truly special meal, a meal a cut above any seafood dish in Washington, DC, at any price. If only once, you owe it to yourself to go to Courtney’s.
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