Brightwell, which describes itself as a "cafe and comptoir" has been open since just before Thanksgiving in the Easton Market Square development in Talbot County. ("Comptoir" means counter, and I guess that might refer to the raw bar as well as the one serving spirits.)
It's taken me this long to write about it, and it might take me a while longer to get there for a review. Easton is only 90 minutes away, but it seems longer when the days are so short.
The thoroughly French menu keeps threatening to rouse me from my winter slumber. Beef-brisket onion soup is calling, and so is fried bacalao croquettes with anchovy butter, a wood-fired Maine lobster and grilled "French Colonial chicken wings." On the comptoir side, I'm feeling the pull of a raw bar, 10 beers on tap, a selection of "great French and American wines for retail prices," and a specialty cocktail menu including hot whiskey, infused gin (with, say, horseradish and cucumber) and vodka (with ginger, vanilla and orange).
Keegan, a graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine in Washington, is the executive chef for the St. Michaels restaurants and for Brightwell. I noticed on his resume the restaurant
, which still exists years later in my own head as the model of the fantastic, little, impossibly crowded East Village restaurant. I had a nice talk with Keegan about the challenges of the opening season at Brasserie Brightwell, which he and Fox want to be "the kind of restaurant where customers can come several times a week."
To that end, Keegan has added plats du jour to the menu to encourage those repeat visits: It's seafood bouillabaisse on Wednesday, beef Bourguignon on Friday, duck a l'orange on Saturday and coq au vin on Sunday. The most expensive item on the regular menu is a $26 12-ounce Delmonico but also includes relatively inexpensive main courses like a $12 burger (with brie, ham and mustard creme fraiche), and a $14 steak frites entree.
Keegan's experience in New York, where there is a bottomless pool of trained servers, left him unprepared, he acknowledged, for the amount of training he'd have to give to the Brasserie Brightwell staff. There were few applicants with more than a passing knowledge of French cuisine, Keegan said, and wait staff were sometimes at a disadvantage when faced with Easton's more sophisticated clientele.
"Staff education is something we take very seriously," Keegan said, who holds frequent informal education sessions for his staff. "They've come a long way. And if they have the right attitude, it's worth taking the time to train them." He had special praise for David Woodall, who has been working Brightwell's raw bar. "He is so hungry for information. I keep giving him things to read, and he keeps absorbing it."
Keegan is especially looking forward to the spring, when Brightwell will be able to roll up the garage doors that lead to an outdoor patio, which has its own bar and community dining table. "We're going to put a gazebo out there for live music," he added. He's hoping that folks on the Western Shore don't wait that long, though.