It's been 10 years since Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman opened Petit Louis in the Roland Park space that for nearly a century was Morgan Millard, also known as Morgan & Millard. There was a time when you could make a Gilman boy's lips quiver just by mentioning "The Morgue."
Ten years later, Petit Louis is a category-owner. On a random weeknight, it comes close to soup-to-nuts perfection. And these days, it's doing so in a manner that feels effortless and natural, the way a restaurant, or a person, behaves when it knows it's loved.
Petit Louis arrived three years after Wolf and Foreman's big hit with Charleston but before the arrival of Bin 604, Pazo and Cinghiale. In a 1999 Sun article announcing Petit Louis, Tony Foreman said that his goal was to create an "instant institution." He described it, six months before its opening, as "a casual place for French comfort food, like roasted chicken, mussels, great bread, a perfect piece of fish, creme caramel, steak frites."
I said Petit Louis excels from soup to nuts. It starts, really, with the delivery to the table of a whole-wheat boule (baked in the ovens at Pazo) served soft, with unsweetened butter and a cellar of sea salt. And then, a coherent list of wine by the glass and classic aperitifs like Pernod and Ricard. Try a Muscatini, an ice-cold cocktail of vodka and sweet fortified wine.
I am aware of concerns about pretension at Petit Louis. I don't feel it, though. I feel instead like I'm in good hands here, and I appreciate the good training that the servers bring to the table. (I also know that people have found the noise level here a problem. I don't hear it that way, either, but I'm sympathetic.)
The menu is a distillation of 15 or so appetizers and entrees, some of which have been around since the original menu devised by Foreman and Wolf, who are now credited on the menu as restaurateurs; the chef de cuisine is Ben Lefenfeld. Among the most cherished originals: steak frites, coquilles St. Jacques and the triumphant, extreme pleasure-giving French onion soup, made from the house veal stock, stuffed with caramelized onions, and topped with Gruyere cheese.
The appetizer course made us a little giddy, really. There was, indispensably, that onion soup, and there was a sublime sliver of foie gras, rendered into a lovely chilled terrine and served with grilled baguettes. The arrival of a stacked appetizer of eggplant croquettes, tomato, olive tapenade and goat cheese drew "aaahs" — the croquettes themselves were overdone that night, just a bit, but enough to regret it. Pillow-soft savory beignets filled with zucchini or shrimp, and served with a red-pepper aioli, though, were perfect, delicate things.
A friend went wild for the rich white wine-tomato broth of a mussels appetizer. I did, too, but it felt like a chore to first work down through the mussels, turning cold quickly, above the broth.
Entrees, served a la carte, at first glance seem small. Not so — they're hearty, buttery and filling. The quiche Lorraine, a friend said, made him understand what quiche was — the good ingredients here were obvious. A classically prepared beef bourguignon, recently introduced as a special, consisted entirely of impossibly tender cubes of braised short ribs. We were told it has been well received and may stick around for a while — if so, it easily competes for the can't-miss entree of the season.
A rockfish entree was enjoyed more for the accompanying caramelized cauliflower than the rockfish itself, which was behaving in its typical manner of never quite yielding up the sweet and wild flavor people order it for. And, then, a bona fide disappointment — roasted chicken that was overdone to dryness.
An evening here is a model of good pacing and unobtrusive service that crescendos with the wheeling in of a cheese cart, laden with a well-curated dozen or so French goat, cow, and sheep cheeses — Comte, Roquefort, Petit Basque. Desserts are simple and lovely, things like poached pears or a gallant roulade of chocolate and pistachio.
The only noise I heard at Petit Louis this evening was our own conversation, the murmur of contented fellow diners, and the gentle communication of advice and encouragement from our servers. Petit Louis is such a good boy.
Where: 4800 Roland Ave., Roland Park
Contact: 410-366-9393, http://www.petitlouis.com
Hours: Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and for Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$12 Entrees, $12-$24
[Key: Outstanding: 4 stars ; Good: 3 stars; Fair or Uneven: 2 stars; Poor: 1]