Charleston Chef Brings Bistro Dining to Roland Park
Here's to the ladies who lunched. Call me sentimental, but I like recalling those wiry, blue-haired Roland Park dowagers who daintily nibbled BLTs, wore white gloves, and always sipped tea with their pinkies extended. I think the ladies, if they were still in the flesh today, would be delighted with the current incarnation of what once was the Morgan Millard restaurant. Petit Louis Bistro Charleston chef Cindy Wolf's recently opened French café conjures up the sort of small, bustling eatery the blue-hairs might have encountered in their youth at the 19th century's turn, when wealthy papas sent their girls abroad for a finishing coat of culture. Happily, those of us lacking polish, or whose polish has worn thin, can enjoy a continental supper (not lunch, though) any time, at reasonable if not bargain prices.
The bistro's staff is attentive, knowledgeable, well-spoken, and polite, which adds immeasurably to the dining experience. So does the décor: shades of black and cream and old-fashioned rose, a tin ceiling, marble tabletops, wall sconces, and chandeliers. It's elegant, to be sure, and looks vintage. But don't fall for it. The walls and mirrors have been "distressed" to give the look of age. Peer closely. You'll see that fake dust and stains have been painted into the edges.
Meals begin with a small round loaf of house-baked French sourdough and sweet butter. Good by itself, the bread will be your canvas for thick smears of foie gras ($15) edged in bright yellow fat, so rich you won't want to order it unless you plan to share with friends. Reach for the bread again to sop up the sauce (butter, wine, parsley, and garlic--lots of garlic) from your escargots ($10). The snails are tender, tucked into their shells with a little blessing of pesto.
Not up for goose innards or sophisticated slugs? A simple lemon-vinaigrette-dressed salad of palm hearts and asparagus ($8) is refreshingly light. Cider vinaigrette enlivens a butter-lettuce salad ($8) that incudes slices of sweet summer tomato topped with tapenade (a black-olive spread) and is garnished with a fried medallion of goat cheese. Perfect for a light supper.
Even more perfect, perhaps, if you add a cup of soup. Peasant-bean ($3 per cup, $5 a bowl), with a ham and chicken base, features white beans, Swiss chard, carrots, celery, and peas. The small glass of pistou (pesto) on the side lets you add a dollop or more to taste. Vichyssoise ($3/$5), the classic cold leek-and-potato soup, is ultrarich and thick, speckled with saffron, sprinkled with chives, and finished with a hint of lemon.
If you spring for a main course (plats principaux) instead of sticking with light fare (plats legers), be prepared to spend anywhere from $14 to $19. Most come with one vegetable, but you can order more sides for extra money. We sampled the fish du jour ($14), pan-roasted filet of trout in a brown butter-caper sauce. The fish was obviously of high quality and very fresh, but the portion was skimpy, even when accompanied by a cluster of those anorexic string beans the French call "haricots verts." We supplemented the meal with a large serving of crispy fried potatoes ($4) sprinkled with fleur de sel, the slightly coarse table salt, and dipped into the hot mustard served alongside.
Unless your rich uncle is buying, you might want to pair a soup or salad with some light fare. I enjoyed the charcuterie plate ($8), a meaty assortment featuring a slice of house paté (pork with pistachio), a tasty sausage called Rosette de Lyon, some cured ham, St. Andre cheese (a triple-crème brie), and a garnish of tapenade. Tapenade appears again, combined with goat cheese, tomato, and crisply fried eggplant in a sandwich ($9) that comes with a celeriac remoulade. The blend of flavors and textures appealing.
Which brings us to an observation. Don't let all the French on the menu intimidate you. If you don't know your cassoulet from your croque monsieur (I do, but only through the undying efforts of my French teachers at Milford Mill High, bless their hearts), ask. The servers are reeling off descriptions of almost every dish for almost every table, so don't be shy. C.C. found the menu pretentious, and you may agree. But remember, mes amis, this is Bawlmer, not gay Paree--the bistro's servers are respectful and happy to help.
Finally, you settle back with a cup of French roast and contemplate the desserts (all $5). The crème caramel is small but very sweet. Clafloutis, a light batter poured over fresh berries and baked, comes with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. But you may as well finish gilding the lily with chocolate mousse. Dense, intense, and crafted from the highest quality German semisweet chocolate, it arrives topped with three of the biggest raspberries you will ever see.
Out on the street, the noise and bustle and crowds left behind, I find myself smiling. Yes, here's to the ladies who lunch; a toast to that invincible bunch. At Petit Louis Bistro, their long-gone world lives again.