Sunday, May 26, 2013

Petit Louis Bistro: Total French Immersion

There are so many restaurants these days who are making the minimal effort at creating a space for people to dine and providing them with a decent meal. As we increasingly abdicate our responsibility to provide food for our families to these charlatans, the bar for what is worth paying for gets lower and lower. So often we are served up foot that resembles frozen dinners, both in flavor and craftsmanship, as if we should be willing to pay to have someone else do the cleaning up and count ourselves satisfied.

Then there are restaurateurs who are committed to their craft, who invest their efforts and creativity into building a dining experience that surpasses the ordinary, that is enjoyable and memorable and leave you feeling like the meal was a truly special occasion. For our 14th wedding anniversary, we wanted just that, and Chef Cindy Wolf provided it with Petit Louis Bistro.

Petit Louis is a French bistro located in Baltimore's finest residential neighborhood. But, this is not some American dining experience dressed up like a caricature of the French. It is actually a fair replication of European dining. The host greeted us in enthusiastic (but not overpowering) French. The seating is close with a couple of thoroughfares for the staff to traverse the dining room. And, as a welcome departure from American establishments, there was no music playing, allowing the diners and the staff to create the atmosphere. I also enjoyed that on this mild May evening, we were not subjected to what is almost always too-cold air conditioning. Petit Louis has windows along the dining room that were open, allowing the fresh spring air and home sounds of the surrounding neighborhood to waft in.

Achieving the French atmosphere

The menu is fairly straight-up French and runs the gamut from familiar items like pea soup, smoked salmon, and grilled asparagus to things that only the French would cook, like escargot, confit, and sweetbread.

My counterpart started with the smoked salmon gravlax for his starter, followed by duck confit. I chose the straight French immersion experience and had the escargot for  my starter and the Ris de Veau sweetbread for my main.

The gravlax were lightly smoky, very buttery, and shaved paper thin. Served with a creamy cheese and the most amazing capers that reminded me of Italy. So often capers are mishandled in American kitchens that the acidulation they acquire from the preserving process overpowers whatever you pair them with. These were clean, earthy little berries that were the perfect accent for the dish.

Escargot in butter in the fore, gravlax in the back

My escargot were served shelled and nestled in the traditional sectioned plate with each little mollusk nested in its own butter-filled compartment. The butter was rich and herby with just a hint of garlic, while the escargot themselves were tender and slightly pungent tasting of seawater when bitten.

The duck confit was a generous leg with a crispy skin that snapped when my counterpart cut into it. The meat inside was dark and moist and tasted very strongly of duck. While confit is by design a fatty dish, this confit was not greasy or oily, but was very, very rich. Served on a bed of sliced potatoes, this was heavy, but flavorful, achieving a balance that is part of the artistry of French cuisine.

My sweetbread was a work of culinary perfection. Nestled in among sauteed mushrooms in a Madeira reduction, the organ meat was seared on the outside and tender on the inside without a trace of the bitterness that is so characteristic of this part of the animal. The mushrooms were cooked to perfection, and the rich reduction was a nice counterpoint to the livery flavor of the meat.

Sweetbread in the fore, duck confit in the back

Now, here's something I love about French dining. In addition to thinking one can cook things like snails and organ meat, or that it is somehow OK to leave your poultry in a kettle in the cellar for a couple of months, the French also believe that after a nice meal, one should have a little cheese. Petit Louis has a nightly cheese cart with varieties that range from a mild Spanish-style manchego to a potent little variety that had to be stored in its own separate box. While my counterpart ordered the former, I had to go for the latter, plus an aged goat cheese to round out the selection.

The very French apres dinner cheese cart

The manchego was tender and mild and a good choice after the confit.  The aged goat cheese had a thick rind that was only slightly bitter with a musky, chalky interior. And that little number in its own separate box? Overwhelming. The cheese itself was the texture of taffy with a flavor almost like aged brie that goes very sharp in the back of the mouth. It was surrounded by a crumbly orange rind that was so foreign and intense that I needed a second bite to determine that it was indeed too moldy even for my open-minded palate.

Assorted cheeses with toasted baguette

We shared a dessert that my counterpart has made at home with much success - pots du creme au chocolat. Served with a dollop of heavy, almost buttery cream, it was gratifying to experience how this dessert is prepared by an actual French chef. Dense and dark and rich, we were glad for the espresso we ordered along with it to help cleanse the palate (although when we were still awake after midnight, we were reminded that age alters what one is able to do in life, after-dinner coffee being among the simple things we really should no longer do).

Authentic pots du creme and the espresso that will lead to trouble later

The food was excellent, and this is easily the best meal I have had outside my own home. The service was polite and efficient with the right level of attention - no hovering waitstaff bragging about the kitchen, but rather competent,knowledgeable professionals confident in their work.

We will definitely be returning to Petit Louis.

Located at 4800 Roland Avenue just east of Edy's, Petit Louis Bistro is open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, and brunch and dinner on Sunday. During the week, they provide a prix fixe menu, while on the weekend it is a la carte.

A happy food blogger

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mai Thai Baltimore

Sometimes the worst situations reveal the best in a restaurant. Today may have been such a day for Mai Thai in Baltimore. I placed a take out order and arrived to find the beginnings of the lunch rush with a single employee staffing the front of the house - host, bartender, wait staff, and busser. Oh, and the phone. He never missed a call. He remained pleasant and energetic, sometimes sprinting from the front dining area back to the kitchen, never breaking a sweat or losing his smile.

Mai Thai is located on the corner of Bank and Central in the space formerly occupied by Lemongrass - a favorite lunchtime and happy hour haunt of me and my coworkers until it closed down. I am overjoyed to have Thai food near my office again, and having it exactly where I used to get it is an added bonus as walking down the street and entering the dim interior retains the feeling of an old and comfortable habit.

I miss the sofas that served as the seating area in the bar. They have been replaced with standard restaurant seating. I also miss the fountain that used to segue the bar into the restaurant proper. This has been replaced with what appears to be a sizable table for large, family-style dining. The kitchen is more open and from the entrance is a bright, golden spot at the end of the dark restaurant. Overall, though, it has retained the modern look and feel that Lemongrass established.

The menu is also very similar with the usual selection of noodles, curries, and appetizers. Fans of Thai food will have no trouble finding their favorites here. It is also worth noting that Mai Thai is owned by a Thai family. Their website includes a brief history of their business. The current location is their second restaurant as the first was destroyed in a fire.

Today, I ordered the Panang Curry with chicken, sliced chicken breast in a peanut curry with what the menu called Thai vegetables. This actually turned out to be broccoli and carrots. They were cooked separately from the curry and were steamed to slightly tender, slightly crunchy perfection. Then, the kitchen staff placed them in a separate container to prevent them from wilting while I got my take out back to the office. The sauce was also very good and had a rich and slightly sweet flavor. The peanuts were crushed so fine that they blended into the sauce lending their flavor without providing any obstacles.

The chicken was the weak spot. Often when I go to Chinese restaurants, the meat comes across as pre-prepared, and somehow over-processed, as if the sad little pieces of chicken breast or red-tipped roasted pork were prepped at some factory and shipped out from McCain's or Sysco in giant bags only to be reheated as needed in the restaurant. That's how this chicken was. It was also relatively tasteless, so it didn't really interfere with my enjoyment of the other components of the meal. But next time I'll try the shrimp.

Overall, I was fairly pleased with my Thai dining experience from Mai Thai and am glad to have Thai food once again within walking distance from the office.

Mai Thai is located on the edge of Little Italy at 1300 Bank Street. The main entrance is around the corner on Central. They are open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Moroccan Chicken with Pomegranate Glazed Carrots

My counterpart returned from Pittsburgh, and things have more or less returned to normal. Except that he is now telecommuting to Pittsburgh from the den. Which means until the weather is consistently nice for grilling, dinner will usually be something quick, like hot dogs or mac and cheese. This provides me with an opportunity to continue cooking. So long as he is open to experimentation.

Tonight I threw my hat in the ring with a Moroccan-themed dinner of chicken with pomegranate-glazed carrots. I thought these two dishes would go together as they have a similar flavor theme - cinnamon and coriander. The chicken recipe is for chicken that is first marinaded for six hours and then grilled. I adapted it for cooking on the stovetop by applying the seasonings as a rub rather than a marinade.

Tonight's flavor theme for dinner

First, I started some rice. Remember that the key to perfect rice is a splash of heavy cream.

For my chicken, I used a pack of chicken thighs that I cut into strips, because if it looks the same, it cooks the same.

I made my rub out of the seasonings for the marinade:

3 Tbsp ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Chicken rubbed with spices

I rubbed it into the cut thigh meat while I preheated some olive oil in a sturdy skillet. I sauteed the chicken in the oil over moderate heat until it was cooked through.

Cooked on the stovetop

I also cooked om carrots at the same time. For the pomegranate-glazed carrots, I cut my carrots into diagonal slices and sauteed them in olive oil for about five minutes before adding the following:

1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 tsp cinnamon - the recipe calls for a cinnamon stick, which I did not have, so I used the same cinnamon as in the chicken
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp coriander - the recipe calls for roasted coriander seeds - I used the same ground coriander as in the chicken

The recipe indicates that as this cooks, the pomegranate juice will cook down and may a glaze. This did happen. Kind of. I think it is relying on some natural sugar form the carrots to create the glaze, so timing is important. I think my timing was a little off, along with my seasonings. My carrots were not overcooked; however, the flavor of the dish was overpowered by the pomegranate.

Carrots with a pomegranate glaze

The chicken fared much better. It had a vaguely Moroccan flavor to it with just a little sweetness from the sugar. I think this recipe worked well as a rub and wish I had taken the time to let the flavors set before cooking.

Here are the links to the recipes as they appeared on epicurious:

Grilled Chicken Moroccan Style
Pomegranate-Glazed Carrots

Tonight's dinner - a fair success