Dining review

Fine French fare with an international spin at Le Garage

For The Baltimore Sun
Le Garage continues to prove that French food can be comforting and isn't always fancy.

The restaurant industry is a land of constant upheaval, with frequent openings, closings, trends and personnel changes. Restaurant owners need to balance public expectations with the creative proclivities of chefs, evolving when it's appropriate but holding firm when it's not.

Le Garage Beer Bar & Frites, which opened in Hampden in the spring of 2014, is no stranger to change and has managed it well.

When the restaurant opened, the focus was on casual fare that would prove that French food can be comforting and isn't always fancy. Then-chef Sarah Acconcia garnered good reviews for her down-home take on the storied cuisine. Fast-forward one year. Acconcia departed and Andrew Weinzirl, a former co-owner of Maggie's Farm in Lauraville, stepped in to take over the kitchen.

Weinzirl's challenge was to keep what people already loved about Le Garage, but add his own spin. He's done that – and done it well.

The restaurant's core dishes — items such as onion soup and steak frites — remain on the menu and the focus on unfussy French food is still apparent. But Weinzirl has played with Le Garage's formula, weaving global flavors into traditional French presentations. The menu feels familiar, but with some delightful surprises along the way.

Beef tartare, for example, is a mainstay of French cuisine. The classic presentation involves raw beef mixed with strong ingredients such as red onion, capers and Dijon mustard. At Le Garage, Weinzirl keeps the beef, but gets creative with the other ingredients, adding daikon radish, fish sauce and a spicy blend of chile pepper and tomato.

The resulting dish was one part Asian and one part French – intriguing and terrific.

A steaming pot full of mussels, also drawing inspiration from Asia, was equally interesting. With a sweet broth of red curry and coconut milk, a generous scattering of Thai basil and an acidic handful of small, halved tomatoes, the dish was fragrant and fabulous.

The steak frites, an old standby, was also a success, though without the unexpected flavors of the Asian-inspired dishes. It's nice to know, though, that the menu still includes a hearty steak, simply and nicely cooked, served with a lovely bearnaise and a small green salad.

Frites, with both the mussels and steak, were thick and crunchy on the outside — and excellent. Our waitress suggested sauces based on the entrees: spicy chili ginger aioli for the mussels and roasted garlic and Parmesan aoili for the steak. Both were well-balanced and smart matches.

A scallop dish, featuring succotash, bright green tomato chimichurri and smoky tomato butter, was thoughtfully conceived and well-executed. Unfortunately, it also left us wanting more. We loved the flavors – but the dish didn't fill us up.

Weinzirl and company change the menu seasonally and occasionally host fun theme nights. We happened to visit during a Creole event featuring New Orleans-inspired dishes. One of them, a sweetbread appetizer served over creamy potatoes, with peppers and onions, was tender and delicate. Another, a duck breast with dirty rice and gorgeous figs, packed a flavorful punch. Though the duck was cooked a little unevenly — a few slices were more rare than medium rare — the dish as a whole was impressively well-conceived.

As it was when the restaurant opened last year, the service was friendly and knowledgeable. Our waitress seemed well-acquainted with every dish on the menu and that she could talk beer and cocktails, too. We appreciated her suggestions — and all of them were right on the money. The meal was paced properly and on the one occasion that a glass of wine appeared after two minutes, instead of instantly, the waitress apologized for the delay.

The space also remains unchanged. The basement location is still cozy and cool, decorated with a mix of deep gray, whitewashed brick and warm accents. Open bookcases divide the bar from the dining room, which makes both sides of the room feel intimate, but not cramped.

After dinner, we lingered over drinks — the bourbon-and-cider concoction called Kentucky Cidre was a favorite — and dessert, including small slices of fresh goat cheese from Charlottetown Farm and a wonderfully autumnal pecan-topped sweet potato cheesecake.

Throughout the meal, the bar was bustling — a healthy crowd for a Wednesday — and the dining room was about half full. It was a happy group, and not surprisingly.

We loved our culinary trip through France, by way of Asia and New Orleans, and suspect everyone around us felt the same way.

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Le Garage Beer Bar & Frites

Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Where: 911 W. 36th St., Hampden

Contact: 410-243-6300; legaragebaltimore.com

Open: Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight

Prices: Appetizers, tartines, frites and cheese, $4.50-$12; Entrees, $14-$26

Food: Casual French fare with an international twist

Noise/TVs: Moderate conversational noise with one television in the bar that is turned on (with the sound off) for Ravens games and some Oriole's games

Service: Friendly and well-informed

Parking: A free parking lot for Le Garage guests is behind the restaurant.

Special diets: The kitchen will work with guests to accommodate special diets.

Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted

[Key: 5 stars, Superlative; 4 stars, Excellent; 3 stars Very Good; 2 stars, Good; 1 star, Promising: ]