If you can tear yourself away from the downtown Annapolis restaurants with their trendy menus and endless beer and whiskey lists, venture into West Annapolis. Something's cooking.
Frederik De Pue, late a rising star chef on the wild and wooly D.C. scene, has fled to Annapolis and converted what was once a private home and, later, an upscale children's clothing store into a cozy showcase for his intriguing, appealing cooking skills.
It's called Flamant, and opened in mid-June.
There is something very special about small chef-owned restaurants and, regrettably, there are few in this area. The proprietor has a vision that starts with what he or she wants to put on the plate and builds around it an atmosphere and staff to complement it.
His renovation of the old Giant Peach kiddie clothier is sleek and chic. The décor is light, airy, cool and intimate all at once. The vibe here is informal bistro, relaxed and casual.
While just about any beverage you want is available, wine rules the roost. The Flamant selections are many – mostly European and Californian – with few familiar labels. Pricing reflects the quality.
The food? De Pue's Belgian roots are clear (Oh! Those fried potatoes and the chocolate frozen dessert), but his fresh and careful cooking is alive with European sensibilities.
His menu will be seasonal and could change daily based on availability of ingredients. Right now, nine "snacks and starters" and five "main dishes" sounds limited, but tucked into those choices is a lot of variety.
The snack category leads off with Blue Crab Rolls ($9). What? Yes, but they're worlds away from what the name implies. Inside a thin tube of luscious filo-like dough is a vein of fresh crabmeat. Flash-fried with a whiff of Old Bay and served with a gin-laced dipping sauce, they alone will tempt you to return.
Tempered Farm Butter Breakfast Radishes ($7), also a "snack," will earn new respect for the lowly vegetable when you crown these mild varieties with good butter and sea salt. We also shared a starter bowl Spinach Gazpacho ($15), an alluring, summery hybrid of soup and salad. The thick, beautifully seasoned cold spinach broth was laced with mussels, perfectly cooked.
Another starter, the Duck Confit Tart ($16) was equally successful. The duck leg and thigh arrived perched on a tart of eggplant, cornichon, capers and potato.
Our threesome chose main courses of Sous Vide Tarragon (fried chicken $25), Dry Aged Beef Tenderloin ($38) and Maine Lobster Ragout ($36).
Two pieces of quality poultry were deep fried in a batter of beer, buttermilk and flour. The chicken was moist and tender, but the crusty exterior fell apart at the first touch of knife and fork, making it difficult to enjoy them together. The accompanying Belgian Fries were a fine rendition of the classic preparation and were quickly enjoyed by the entire party.
It's hard not to love a perfectly grilled, dry-aged, tenderloin steak, served in shallot jus. Add a potato croquette and baby turnips to the plate and what could be a heavy meal seems just right for the summer weather.
I'm not a huge lobster fan drawn butter and I have never been friends. De Pue's version brings tail and claw meat in the shell to the table in the cooking broth of mild anise, tomato and melted leeks, braised to fork tenderness. Again, potentially heavy eating seems lighter and more flavorful.
The five desserts at Flamant - all house made - carry the light theme to the meal's end. Crepes and coconut-pineapple ravioli are among the choices. We closed by sharing the Belgian Chocolate, of course ($8), and were rewarded with a frozen bar of rich, but not dark, chocolate, peanuts and caramel. Exceptional.
Restaurants such as Flamant don't often succeed as large establishments. They are personal adventures in dining, mirroring the food philosophy of the chef-owner.
That's why, although open less than a week the night we were there, the service was skilled and knowledgeable. That's why most diners can catch a glimpse of De Pue in Flamant's partially open kitchen and why you will more than likely find him at your table at some point during your visit, ensuring your enjoyment.
Sooner or later, the Washington crowd will figure out where De Pue is hiding and head for Flamant.
The later the better.
WHERE: 17 Annapolis Street (West Annapolis)
HOURS: Tuesday to Saturday: 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Closed Sundays and Mondays
CHEF: Frederik De Pue
SNACKS & FIRST COURSES: $7-18
MAINS: $22 to $38
CREDIT CARDS: All Major Cards
RESERVATIONS: Yes, Suggested.