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

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