Colette sashayed onto the Baltimore dining scene in February, flouncing her charms in much the same way that sister restaurant Bottega did when it opened in 2013. The bistros, which are blocks from each other in Station North, share a quaint charm with intriguing menus that immediately attracted curious crowds.
While the culinary siblings might resemble each other in some respects, they have their own personalities.
While Bottega is a BYOB, serving Tuscan fare in a 25-seat dining room reminiscent of a cozy farmhouse, Colette has a full-service bar and bare-wood tables that bring to mind a Parisian drinking spot where Hemingway and Fitzgerald might have hung out.
The cocktails at Colette are part of the fun. Bar manager Crystal Wack went back in time for many of her enticing drink recipes.
"I have an appreciation for classic cocktails," Wack says. "I enjoy making them, and it got me into bartending."
One of those cocktails, a Sazerac — circa 1838 — combines the New Orleans libation with rye whiskey, bitters, absinthe and a big, single ice cube in a rocks glass.
The straight-up Bee's Knees and Jack Rose cocktails in Nick and Nora glasses (named after the couple from the "Thin Man" films of the 1930s and '40s) are sultry drinks that make you want to take a drag off a vampy cigarette holder. Draft beers and a wine list focusing mostly on France and Italy quench your modern-day thirst.
To pull it all together, chef Stefano Porcile, who has worked at Woodberry Kitchen and Fork & Wrench, is the maestro behind the French-influenced cuisine in the kitchen. But he's not content to stay there during meals. The chef popped into the dining room a couple of times during our dinner, checking on his dishes and asking for feedback.
For the most part, our dinner delivered positive results, although the timing stretched out too long between our appetizers and entrees, and then again before we got dessert. We got the feeling that this devoted chef is agonizing over each dish before it makes its appearance at the table.
"An important ingredient is love," Porcile said later. "I'm interested in keeping everyone happy."
As diners with nowhere to go that evening, we just sat back and enjoyed the ride. The restaurant, which is next to Tapas Teatro and the Charles Theatre, seats about 75 between two areas. The front section with the bar has seating at black bentwood stools and at several tables. A rear room in the narrow restaurant has several tables for those who want to linger over dinner.
The decor is low-key but whimsical, from a dartboard and weight scale on a shelf to copper molds in a former cold case. Our never-missed-a-beat waitress proved an able navigator through the step-back-in-time vibe at Colette.
Owner Adrien Aeschliman told me in December when announcing the restaurant that he picked the name simply because he liked it.
Each appetizer showed the chef's passion. Five Gruyere beignets were masterful with drizzled honey, oniony chives and sea salt. A carrot and apple veloute (think creamy broth) was a delicious pleaser with curry and golden raisins and a swish of kefir, a yogurt-like cream.
The one starter that puzzled us was the duck confit. It wasn't your typical presentation. The sliced confit was mixed into a salad of watercress and apricots with slivers of daikon radish lying like pickup sticks atop the greens. We appreciated the creativity and mix of flavors.
Our beet salad was beautiful, with soft-roasted orange and purple specimens adorned with crunchy pine nuts and a tangy sorrel-buttermilk dressing.
More seafood dishes are offered at Colette than at the more meat-focused Bottega, but our favorite dish was the meltingly tender beef cheeks strewn atop a pad of celeriac mash with a bouquet of parsley.
We were pleased with the bourride, a creamy Mediterranean fish soup, with plump oysters, mussels, clam and potatoes. The monkfish in another dish was a little resistant to our utensils, and we're not sure the country-ham jus suited the fillet.
We reveled in the spicy chickpea stew, with sticks of finger-size panisse (chickpea fritters) that added a terrific texture and a slow egg whose runny yolk blended wonderfully with the contents.
Don't rush off yet. Desserts are worth the wait. The rectangular mousse cake with passion fruit and chocolate was a layered affair deserving a fling.
But we really appreciated the small honey cake, dotted with lemon curd and lavender, served with a roasted pear half. We felt like it was made in a nurturing home kitchen.
The affection continues with a complimentary plate of citrus madeleines, a reminder that this is a kitchen that cares.
The restaurant's name may conjure the image of the free-spirited woman from the novella "Gigi" — written by the French author Colette — but our local Colette has serious intentions. It wants to win over Baltimore appetites for the long term with its culinary charms.