Marie Louise Bistro: the buzz starts now

Marie Louise Bistro, the new restaurant in the building that once housed Gampy's, is the Greta Garbo of Baltimore restaurants.

I'm not saying its owner literally shuns publicity, but I did leave messages for her several times at Marie Louise Catering before the bistro opened, and was always told that only she could talk about the new place. I never heard back.

There is also remarkably little information about the place on the Internet. Usually the local food blogs and message boards are abuzz about a new restaurant, but not this one. When I asked some people I know who live in the area, they told me that whenever they passed by, Marie Louise had been empty.

Some places hate getting positive publicity when they're new because they feel they aren't ready to deal with crowds, but Marie Louise Bistro is having the soft opening to end all soft openings. When I looked on the Net last week, a takeout review in City Paper was about the only thing I could find.

All this is by way of explaining why I gave the place more time than usual before I went. The dead of winter in this economy isn't the best time to be opening a restaurant; but when I finally got around to eating there, I realized Marie Louise Bistro has found its niche. It has already established itself as a neighborhood restaurant. Other people who came in - and it was moderately busy - seemed to know the hostess and other diners. If you live around there and can walk to it, all the better, because the parking situation can be grim.

The newly renovated space (lots of blond wood grounded with period appointments like the pressed-tin ceiling) has a seductive pastry case up front, a dining room in back and a bar upstairs on the mezzanine. The space, with its tile floor, is pleasant-looking but not particularly cozy. There are no fabrics, and it must be hard to heat. Anyway, we were chilly the night we were there. Upstairs is warmer, but except for a table for large parties, there are only high-tops near the bar.

I'm never sure what "bistro" means these days. In Marie Louise's case, I would say good, French-influenced food with a Mediterranean accent. (The duck confit comes with couscous, for instance.) The service was friendly and casual, but our waitress turned out to be more professional than she seemed at first.

Most important for a restaurant's survival in this location: The price is right. The most expensive thing on the menu is beef tenderloin with vegetables for $20.95. The meat and seafood entrees are all reasonably priced, but if $15 is too much for you to spend, there are sandwiches and six vegetarian dinners for $12 and less. The spinach lasagna, with meltingly soft noodles, lots of cheese and spinach and a lively tomato sauce, was as satisfying as anything we had.

Well, maybe not quite as satisfying as the macaroni and cheese casserole with bacon - a cheesy, wicked delight - but it's only a side.

Most of the other food we tried had a bit more finesse. (I don't mean to give you the impression that Marie Louise specializes in homey comfort food.) Toasted brioche slices are the beginning of an appetizer that pleases with a combination of roasted red pepper, chevre and tapenade. Marinated mozzarella over fresh tomatoes and basil almost made us forget that the large, fat tomato slices weren't quite summer-delicious.

Some of the selections are quite traditional. The only soups offered are French onion, black bean and Maryland crab; but the French onion soup was made with good stock, not too salty; the croutons stayed crisp and the cheese wasn't overwhelming.

You might think that grilled vegetables "drizzled with balsamic vinegar" would be a lighter way to begin your meal, but the vegetables actually come with quite a bit of oil as well as vinegar. I didn't mind this greatly, but it seemed to be a theme throughout - a throwback to more traditional French cooking. These days, sauces are often reductions, but here lots of butter and oil seems to be the norm. If you're dieting, don't assume that the choices that sound low-calorie actually are. You're going to have to ask for the low-fat version.

Boneless chicken breasts, for instance, with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and mushrooms, arrived swimming in a very rich, garlicky sauce sparked with white wine. Lots of couscous rounded out the plate and soaked the sauce up deliciously.

Carbs are a star at Marie Louise. I wasn't crazy about the pork tenderloin because it was wrapped in bacon, which just didn't work for me, but the accompanying potatoes dauphinoise, thinly sliced and baked with cream (what your mother may have called scalloped potatoes), were to die for.

Not to mention the excellent bread.

The bistro has quite a bit of seafood, including a sauteed sole fillet with a thin, golden crust that was overcooked but had such a flavorful sauce of tomatoes, capers and wine that it almost didn't matter.

Marie Louise Bistro features a decent, mostly European wine list, moderately priced to match the moderately priced food. It even has three house wines, which I haven't seen in a while, for $21 a bottle or $5.50 a glass (a French sauvignon blanc and merlot, and a California chardonnay).

After dinner, the server will bring around a tray of French pastries. I'm sure the selection changes, but if the "strawberry shortcake" is on the tray, don't hesitate to order it. It bears little resemblance to American shortcake, but is a fabulous combination of spongecake, cream and fruit with fondant on top. A chocolate purse filled with mousse and chocolate cake paled in comparison, and the mille-feuille was a wannabe, although it would have been wonderful with some of that fondant on top.

All in all, the whole experience was much better than I could have hoped for, given the lack of buzz. Marie Louise Bistro is a restaurant that could do very well in this economy - as soon as more customers find out about it.

marie louise bistro
Address: 904 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Hours: Open daily for continental breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$7.95; entrees, $9.95-$20.95

Contact: 410-385-9946

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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