For Bill Irvin, opening a French bistro in Baltimore could have been madness. He wasn't sure diners were ready for a brasserie-style restaurant.
That's why he and his three partners decided on the name La Folie Steak Frites and Wine Bar for their new Canton eatery.
Folie means madness in French.
"So far, it's working," said Irvin of the concept.
In the space previously occupied by Tavern on the Square, Irvin wanted to bring the joie de vivre of a reasonably priced Parisian bistro to bar-saturated O'Donnell Square, he said.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the Canton area makes parking a challenge. It took us a while to find a spot on a busy Thursday evening when a concert at the waterfront was adding to the congestion. We finally found a space many blocks from the restaurant.
When we finally arrived at La Folie, we had the feeling we had been there before — and we had, in its former iteration. While the structure is familiar, the place is more refined.
The wall arches have been reshaped so bar patrons have a view of the classic, black-framed mirrors in the dining room; the walls have been painted a soothing pale yellow; red banquettes have been added; and a custom-made zinc bar top makes you feel like you have stepped into a cafe in the chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres area of Paris.
A gracious hostess with a lilting Scottish accent led us to one of the cloth-covered tables, topped in brown paper, bistro style. We were greeted with a bowl of fresh popcorn.
The popular house drink is frose (fro-ZAY), a slushie-like cocktail with rose wine mixed with strawberry puree and lemon. It's a refreshing beverage that takes the edge off of August.
Carafes of house wines, plus bottles and glasses of other wines are available. They're all French, and there's a price for everyone. We enjoyed a Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Villages Rouge bursting with berry notes for $8 a glass.
The one-page menu with traditional French comfort food doesn't stray from its culinary mission. A thick slice of country pate with cornichons, a dish of whole-grain mustard and toasted baguette slices are simple, satisfying bistro fare.
If you're a mushroom lover — and we are — you're going to love the mushroom crisps appetizer.
The name makes it sound like the dish arrives with mushrooms already atop toasted bread. Au contraire. You do the assembly, but the reward is great. You spread a crisp baguette slice with thick apple butter and top it with a scoop of buttery mushrooms. The flavor and mouth feel are terrific.
The onion soup au gratin was a rich, beefy broth swimming with translucent slices of onion, hidden under a gooey cap of Comte and Gruyere cheeses. The cheese, easily managed with a spoon, wasn't the usual stringy mess found in some versions of this soup.
The salade Lyonnaise was a fine nod to the dish that originated in Lyon, France. The combination of the slightly bitter frisee, salty lardons, silky poached egg and crunchy croutons in a tart vinaigrette was a burst of delightful umami.
La Folie's frites are hot, salty, thin fries — the kind you can't get enough of. They're paired with a variety of accompaniments.
The most traditional offering is steak frites. At Folie, executive chef Pita Portillo cooks a coulotte steak, first by a tenderizing sous-vide method and then sizzling it on a metal plate. The sliced meat was exquisite.
It's drizzled with a house sauce, which tasted a lot like A.1. Our waitress said the recipe is a secret, and the kitchen doesn't divulge the ingredients.
The portobello frites, featuring a sizeable mushroom from Lancaster County, Pa., was a delicious substitute for meat. The sliced wedges of portobello were lathered with an olive oil-balsamic mix that enhanced its flavor.
You can also get a pile of frites with salmon or roasted chicken. On our visit, the frites dishes came with a house salad or a creamy squash soup (our choice), which had wonderful lemon undertones.
The moules frites, served in a deep pot, were fat Prince Edward Island mussels from Malpeque Bay. There are three preparations: white wine sauce, blue cheese and Provencal, which we ordered.
We opted for a full order. (A half-portion is also available.) Our mussels were strewn with spicy lamb sausage, onions, fennel, capers, tomatoes and lemon for a glorious presentation.
The restaurant's burger (a single 4-ounce patty or two patties of beef or turkey) is accompanied by fries, too. We had one beef patty and were pleased with the portion and toppings: caramelized onions, garlic aioli and cheese.
The desserts are made in house, Irvin said. We enjoyed a creme brulee, which was large enough to satisfy our table of four.
The tap of a spoon through the brittle caramelized sugar coating revealed a smooth, soothing custard. A scattering of grapes and a sliced strawberry were proper garnishes.
We also finished with a half-dozen macarons, lighter-than-air meringue cookies with delicate cream fillings. There were three chocolate and three vanilla. We liked both flavors.
La Folie delivered what it promised: an enjoyable bistro meal without a huge price tag.
The only madness we can see is Canton's parking issue.