Annapolitans are loyal, and the city has an impressive list of long-running restaurants. Once a place clicks, it tends to stay. That's not too surprising for a political town. Call it the incumbency effect.
In 1986, Jean-Louis Evennou opened the original Cafe Normandie on Main Street in Annapolis. Five years later, he and his wife, Suzanne, moved the restaurant five doors down, where it's been ever since, serving a reasonably priced menu of French cafe classics like escargots, bouef bourguignonne, bouillabaisse and roast duck.
Cafe Normandie is a little eccentric, a little frayed around the edges and not what we think of these days as beautiful. You just don't see olive and mustard color schemes much anymore. And at first glance, the interior, with its timbered ceiling, Renoir reproductions and mammoth free-standing fireplace, makes Cafe Normandie feel like the setting for a practice dialogue in first-year French.
But Cafe Normandie is completely sincere, and absolutely devoted to good French cuisine, prepared confidently with good, real ingredients. You can take that to mean that dishes are prepared with plenty of butter and cream.
So if you haven't enjoyed trout amandine for a while, or if you haven't really given trout amandine much thought at all, the buttery, beautifully browned version of it at Cafe Normandie might make you a little giddy. A diner at our table, who became nostalgic at the thought of trout, was especially pleased with how hot the first forkful of flaky fish was, as though it had been finished in the pan only moments before it came to the table. I bet it had.
If early on our waiter seemed only partly aware of our presence, it was because, I came to believe, that he knew there was nothing to worry about. He knew that the trout would be close to perfect and so would the other entrees — a sterling steak au poivre that was prepared with an actual peppercorn crust; veal sauteed with wild mushrooms in a Calvados-cream sauce, and a robust and zesty bouillabaisse brimming with squid, mussels and fish.
The food is presented simply and beautifully on bone-white dishes. Side dishes, which aren't mentioned on the menu, are served in humane portions. They add color and variety but not mass weight. There were shiny haricots verts, slivers of carrots and oven-crisp potatoes. The trout came with a serving of fluffy rice. The bouillabaisse, best of all, was garnished with a rouille, a delectable sauce made from olive oil, bread crumbs and sun-dried tomatoes, and was served with warm garlic bread made from slices of fresh baguettes.
In a dining era when flashy appetizers get the attention, it was heartening to see entrees steal the show. This is real food, done well — a steak at the perfect temperature, vegetables crisp, a hint of cognac in the humble brown sauce.
An appetizer platter offered subtler pleasures, little pieces of toast with melting goat cheese, fat spears of asparagus in a delicate vinaigrette, mussels baked with bread crumbs and herbs, slices of saucissons and peppered sausage, and a dollop of chicken liver pate. We tried, too, the onion soup, which was prepared the way most Americans love it, with plenty of gooey Gruyere cheese and a strong, beefy broth.
Dessert, hard to think about after so much richness, is the time to share a crepe, a Cafe Normandie specialty, stuffed with apples and pecans, topped with caramel sauce and fluffy whipped cream, or, my recommendation, a small bowl of macerated cherries and vanilla ice cream.
But as much as I appreciate the confidence and rigorous approach to cuisine, there are a few things that Cafe Normandie could attend to that would make dinner a more complete package. The atmosphere that I decided was shabby-chic would just be shabby if you didn't like the food so much. The wine list, presented in a loose-leaf binder filled with plastic sheets, looks like a school project. And, yes, the service is confident. But more attention would have been nice. The table wasn't cleared between courses, even of bread crumbs and stray shrimp shells.
I'd like to see Cafe Normandie on a drizzly afternoon or early on a weeknight, when the restaurant runs a $27 fixed-price dinner special. The locals, I've been told, stay away from their favorite Annapolis restaurants on Saturdays, leaving them to the tourists. And on our Saturday night visit, we got the feeling we were expected to be rubes. We're always willing to oblige.
Where: 185 Main St., Annapolis
Contact: 410-263-3382, cafenormandie.com
Open: Open daily for lunch and dinner and for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $7-$15; entrees $18-$36
Food: French country cuisine with Maryland seafood specialties.
Service: Serenely unruffled and in control.
Best dishes: Trout amandine, bouillabaisse, steak au poivre
Parking: Street parking and the nearby Hillman Garage on Gorman Street.
Children: Plenty of visual stimuli, and a children's menu is available.
Noise level: Comfortable, and never blaring.
Dress code: Casual dining, come as you are.
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]