For all of the wealth of cuisine choices Baltimore currently boasts, two distinctive areas seem awfully underrepresented — French and German.
I won’t hold my breath for the arrival of a classy dispenser of tender schnitzel and pillowy spaetzle any time soon, but the city’s small French contingent has been fortified by the recent downtown arrival of Chez Hugo. It may be a little uneven, but it clearly has the right ingredients.
Located in the handsome Merchants Club building from 1905, next door to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Chez Hugo is in the capable hands of Steve Monnier, who closed his Aromes restaurant in Hampden last fall and opened the bistro (named for his son) in late February.
The pristine and pleasant main dining room, bordered by banquettes of a Dijon mustard hue, holds marble-topped tables with traditional bistro chairs. The elegantly tiled floor adds to the vintage look. There’s also a cozy bar and an intimate tasting room. And, for a welcome finishing touch, jazzy French music plays subtly in the background.
On the weeknight we stopped by, this ambience and our congenial, fully informed server put us quickly in a mood for exploring the menu. We managed to hold onto that mood even as the hours — three of them — passed.
I’m all for leisurely meals, but this pace just felt sluggish, suggesting that the kitchen-to-table process needs fine-tuning. (Speaking of fine-tuning, it would be nice if a way could be found to minimize the sound and cool draft generated by fans used to handle kitchen smoke.)
The bar revealed savoir-faire with its handling of a classic French 75 (extra points for the herby Botanist Gin and poetically sculpted lemon peel), as well as the suave, absinthe-based “Rimbaud’s Vice” — nothing says classic French bistro quite like absinthe.
The appropriately French-dominated wine list also held rewards, including a supple Morgon Cote du Py. Local beers are on the drink list, too; a pale ale from Oliver Brewing Company hit the spot. One other drink note — water was served without ice, just as you would expect in a French restaurant.
Chez Hugo, we learned, prefers to hold off serving bread until the main course. But, fearing my cocktail-fueled state might tempt me to break into an Edith Piaf imitation, I was glad my companions asked for an early delivery. So glad they did — the slightly salt-crusted, perfectly chewy baguette proved irresistible.
Another wonderful loaf accompanied the escargots appetizer. We got more satisfaction dipping the bread into the butter-garlic-parsley sauce than from the modest snails.
No French bistro would dare come up short in the onion soup department. Chez Hugo’s first-rate version was hearty and finely flavored. The grilled carrot salad suffered from an aggressively smokey taste, but derived some counterbalance from grapefruit and fennel.
Our visit was on a Tuesday, when moules frites is the daily special. The well-prepared mussels gained considerably from a rich, buttery sauce, not to mention flavorful, grease-free fries.
There was much to savor in the grilled black sea bass. Surrounding the thick, moist filet (a few bones remained) was vinegary, happily not-too-smokey kale, along with tomato vinaigrette and olives.
The beef bourguignon surprised — first, by not being served in the expected stew-like fashion; second, by being so exceptionally tender. Joining the braised meat, which had no need of a knife, were carrots, pearl onions, mushrooms and slices of grilled bread, all suffused with a fine bordelaise sauce.
The menu’s porcine selection, roasted pork collar, arrived too red and rare, and, though tender, revealed little distinctive flavor. The smokey broccoli (do you detect a theme in the kitchen?) did not lift the unappetizing dish.
With dessert, Chez Hugo was back at the top of its game.
The generously rum-soaked baba au rhum satisfied. A little extra pleasure came from the Paris-Brest, a choux pastry treat with creamy hazelnut filling. Top prize went to the citrus Pavlova, with its refined merengue base supporting a lovely, tangy top.
Teas and coffees are not taken for granted here; the ones we sampled arrived hot and robust, served in stylish vessels.
Chez Hugo is off to a promising start. It will be interesting to see, and taste, how it develops its considerable potential.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 206 E. Redwood St.
Contact: 443-438-3002, chezhugobistro.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $7 to $25, entrees $27 to $36
Noise/TVs: It can get noisy, as you would expect in a bistro. No TVs (but one may be installed temporarily for the World Cup).
Service: Convivial and well-informed.
Parking: Street, nearby garages.
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]