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Marie Louise Bistro filled with pleasant surprises

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The crouton in Marie Louise Bistro's duck salad became key evidence in a mystery that, if anything, made remarkable lunch fare that much more intriguing.

12:40 p.m. The bistro has four outdoor tables we passed on because of the heat. The door opens to a cafe setting with a case displaying pasta and pastries and other goodies that we lingered over for a minute before we were greeted and seated in the first floor dining area. Above us, a loft with bar is the fourth distinct section.

Our server presented the menus and took our drink orders. I was momentarily disconcerted by the diminutive size of my ice tea glass, but then remembered our surroundings. And I wasn't unaware of Marie Louise's reputation. A pint glass would have been out of place. Furthermore, despite its size and my August heat thirst, the glass was never empty.

We took our time over the menu. I noted nine salads, with the duck being the most intriguing. But again, as with my tea glass, the menu struck me as minimalist, even pedestrian, with its pesto chicken, antipasti (which I wrote off as an Italian cold cut), tenderloin, roast turkey, and portabella sandwiches.

12:53 p.m. We placed our order, which included a starter that we split. Our server swore that "you will not be sorry you ordered that" look that sometimes portends a treat. He delivered our starter within five minutes.

A word on Marie Louise appetizers: Get the charcuterie plate. It's a tantalizing opening generous enough for two, but do yourself a favor and distract your companion long enough to steal all the foie gras. I made the mistake of taking only half. The pate, the cured meats, even the garnish of olives and sun-dried tomatoes — all are conversation pieces in their own right. But the foie gras au torchon is the star. Having said that, the frank quality of this selection makes me want to test Marie Louise's seafood, caprese salad and cheese plate offerings.

The mystery alluded to above began when the charcuterie was delivered along with a basket of bread. Both of us immediately noticed a shift in the until-now unbroken vibe of relaxed confidence our setting and service suggested, but neither of us mentioned it: too busy rhapsodizing over our meats.

1:15 p.m. Our entrees arrived. I was glad that my friend ordered the duck salad because I really like duck and hoped he might offer a taste (recall, I did give up half the foie gras). I picked the lamb burger partly because it seemed the most exotic of the sandwiches and partly because I love lamb and rarely have it for lunch.

Any reservations I might have had about our choice of Marie Louise's disappeared faster than the first half of my lamb burger. The menu mentions the burger's feta cheese and Greek yogurt topping. It says nothing about the yogurt being laced with dill. Deft touch.

The duck salad impressed us even more. It's fine enough to chunk duck confit atop mixed greens and call it a salad. We see the same done all the time with grilled or blackened chicken. We both chortled appreciatively over the crispy texture and hint of Asian spices that integrated the fowl with the foliage. Aptly named, this is not a salad with duck on top; this is duck salad.

And now for the mystery: Each increment of our growing fondness for this gem of a North Charles Street bistro iterated and reiterated profound competence and care, a fussing over details that never once betrayed fussiness. So what is with the basket of bread?

1:35 p.m. Paid up, we reluctantly — pausing again over the case of pasta salads and pastries and catching a glimpse of the dessert tray — exited Marie Louise Bistro.

I stress, this is not a criticism, but a question. The bread set down with our charcuterie plate was good, nothing wrong with it, but surprisingly anticlimactic. Set against the rest of the meal, the warm brick enclave of the dining room and all the fantastic flavors that made this stop one of the best lunches I've ever had, the boring bread seemed like it had slipped in under cover of darkness. So we were curious.

But every justification we made for this apparent lapse, we quickly countered, including speculation that the kitchen doesn't think bread all that important. But the crouton in the duck salad, a robust baguette topped with melted goat cheese, shot that theory. It expressly demonstrated the bistro knows and cares about details, right down to the bread in the salad.

My dining companion and I both believe that there's a rational explanation that will make us rush back to retrace our bread experience and enjoy what our palates missed the first time around. We also agree that if this mystery is never solved, it will only serve to further endear us to Marie Louise Bistro.

Marie Louise Bistro

Where: 904 N. Charles St.

Contact: 410-385-9946

Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to close

Lunch entrees: $9-$13

Salads: $5-$13

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

Dining time55

minutes

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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