It's not a replica of the original, but the new Petit Louis Bistro in Columbia has the heart and soul of its namesake restaurant in Roland Park, not to mention its exceptional service, confidently prepared French cuisine and the attention to detail we've come to expect from Baltimore's standard-setting Foreman Wolf restaurant group.
The new Petit Louis, located on the Columbia lakefront on the ground floor of the Exhibit Building, is the first foray into Howard County by restaurateurs Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf. Petit Louis fits so seamlessly into its lakefront setting, it seems like it's been there all along.
If they made the trip to Columbia, longtime fans of Petit Louis in Roland Park, which opened in 2000, might insist that the new version is missing a little of the original's intimacy, perhaps a certain je ne sais quoi. On the other hand, they might cast a jealous eye on some things Columbia has that Roland Park doesn't. For starters, there's the handsome 10-seat marble bar just inside the entrance. The small bar in Baltimore has no seats.
There is altogether more elbow room in Columbia, along with two private dining rooms that are used for everyday dining when not otherwise booked. Foreman Wolf expects to have its outdoor lakefront seating in place by early May.
And there's one thing more — Le Comptoir. Foreman Wolf operates this space, which is adjacent to the bistro, as a combination patisserie, chocolatier, bakery and cafe. Everything is ordered from the counter — "comptoir" is the French word for "counter" or "countertop." You'll want to make a separate visit here, but consider dropping in before or after dinner, to stock up on batards, brioches and bonbons.
As for dinner itself, it moves along more or less seamlessly.
Servers show up just when you're expecting them. If the idea of a certain aperitif pops in your head — maybe something you've been missing, like a kir royale or Pernod — there it is, right on the wine list, under the selection of wines by the glass, which have been chosen less for bargain appeal than excellence. Little things, which are actually big things, are executed here without fuss. A bread basket, filled with slices of batard, arrives. One course is cleared before the next arrives
The food, when it appears, is just as the menu described it. The portion sizes, for everything from a lentil salad to the braised veal shoulder entree to a pot de creme, are unerringly correct, neither too small for your appetite nor too big for your stomach. That's a good thing, because you'll want to have room, before a light dessert, for a cheese course. The selection is stellar.
For starters, try that lentil salad, which is fortified with duck confit and coated, lightly but thoroughly, with a bright raspberry dressing. And throw yourself on the escargots, which are pulled from their shells and served, very hot, in herbed butter, infused with garlic and shallots. And consider the appetizer of house-cured gravlax, served with capers and creme fraiche, if only to confirm your suspicions that the salmon other restaurants have been serving you has come straight out of a package.
For a main platter, you'll want the braised veal shoulder, served with mushrooms, carrots and pearl onions. This is kind of simple-seeming dish that's a hallmark of French cooking, and the trick is to make it seem like you've done nothing at all to make the veal so satisfyingly tender and robust.
The kitchen, under the control of executive chef James Lewandowski, did a fine job cooking the fish for a trout amandine, but I thought it was underseasoned and needed more salt. So did the otherwise admirable whole roasted chicken — juicy meat under golden brown skin — which is carved, dramatically, at the tableside and served with not quite enough roasted root vegetables. The chicken is intended for two diners to share. It's priced at $48.
After our cheese course, we shared a terrific little pot de creme of dark chocolate and salted caramel, and sipped on fruity, fortified digestifs and French-press coffee. Life is good.
Between Roland Park and Columbia, we're calling it a draw. Intimacy on one side, amenities on the other. Know that Columbia's setting is more kid-friendly. There's no children's menu per se, though. When asked about this, Foreman said, "The entire menu is a kid's menu."
To that we say, vive Petit Louis.
Petit Louis Bistro
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Where: 10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia
Contact: 410-964-9999, petitlouis.com
Open: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$18; entrees: $12-$27
Food: French bistro fare
Service: Extremely informed and very attentive
Parking/accessibility: Ample free parking on surface lots and garage
Children: There is no children's menu.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the restaurant. There are no televisions in the restaurant
[Key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1 ]