M. Gettier, 505 South Broadway, (410) 732-1151. Open Mondays to Saturdays for dinner only. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $4.75- $6.25; entrees: $12.50-$17.50.
I like a restaurant that smells of good food from the moment you enter. And that's certainly true of M. Gettier, the new French restaurant that opened in Fells Point where L'Auberge used to be.
Situated between a liquor store and a drugstore on South Broadway, it's not where you expect to find a French restaurant; but when you walk in you feel a world away from the grimy street outside. The small dining room has been redone, but it looks superficially the same, with dark wood paneling and forest green wallpaper above the chair rails. The walls are hung with paintings in gilded frames and the tables are set formally with white linen and crystal, but touches like flowers in Perrier bottles keep the dining room from seeming stuffy.
Even though this is a French restaurant, M. Gettier is not Monsieur Gettier, a Frenchman, but Michael Gettier, an American who trained at La Varenne in Paris. He was executive chef of the Conservatory at the former Peabody Court Hotel, where he made his reputation in Baltimore; but his new restaurant isn't a clone of that now-defunct, top-of-the-line, top-dollar restaurant.
Mr. Gettier is no fool: He knows that in this economy diners are looking for good value as well as good food. His prices are reasonable, if not modest. And that goes for his well-chosen wine list as well. My only quarrel with it is that the restaurant currently offers only one white and one red by the glass.
The food is French, but Mr. Gettier's brand of French. It includes some South American dishes introduced by his wife, Claudia, who was born in Peru. She's responsible for the Peruvian potato salad, the best part of an excellent "various and sundry salad plate," which also included marinated mussels, a delicious "green" salad with red oak leaf lettuce, celeriac, and fava beans in vinaigrette. The luscious mocha cream dessert is also her creation -- it seemed very French to me, but the waiter swore it was Peruvian.
Mr. Gettier's food is imaginative and well-prepared, but I was hTC surprised to see such a wintry menu. This time of year you might expect asparagus or peas: Our vegetables were carrots, acorn squash, pearl onions and duchesse potatoes. The soups were hot; the main courses full-bodied, warming and generously sauced -- the kind of food that appeals most when it's not 90 degrees outside. The only thing that remotely resembles summer food is a soup, smoked corn and chicken with spring vegetables.
There are also no dishes for non-meat eaters, although the kitchen will create a vegetable plate if you ask.
This is intensely flavored, highly seasoned food. Garlic is used boldly. I wouldn't, for instance, flavor the superb homemade bread with garlic and herbs when the main courses are so vigorously seasoned. But at least you can't accuse any dish here of being bland, from the tapenade that comes with drinks to the heavily herb-scented custard that accompanies some main courses.
Take a dish like the slices of lamb filet, juicy and pink, on a bed of fresh spinach, chevre and pine nuts. The sauce is a dark, winey concoction -- in no way heavy, but certainly not reticent. You might precede this with an "assiette" of frogs legs. The delicate little legs, crisply coated with Parmesan, were prettily arranged in concentric pools of a tomato-infused sauce and aioli.
We also had a soup that was a vividly flavorful puree of wild and domestic mushrooms with a crouton covered with melted Brie and Romano cheese. Fabulous. I plan to go back just for it once the temperature drops 40 degrees. Next came the owner-chef's twist on classic duck a l'orange. Slices of boned and skinless duck breast were cooked rarer than I eat beef; they were tender but curiously uninteresting. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the crisp skin of duck as a contrast to the meat. But the sauce, full-bodied and tinged with orange and ginger, was splendid.
M. Gettier has sweetbreads as a first course and an entree. As a starter, they're sauteed and then sauced with a rich walnut puree flavored with garlic and marjoram -- the dish is satisfying enough for a main course.
We followed it with fine fresh salmon that managed to stand up to its crust of breadcrumbs and garlic -- just barely. I would have liked it even better with only the perfectly executed white wine sauce. And with another vegetable besides pearl onions.
Desserts are sophisticated and very good. A pine nut roll was filled with citrus-flavored whipped cream and surrounded by creme anglaise, and a white chocolate mousse cake was both rich and ethereal. Decaffeinated coffee was too strong and not very good, but the cappuccinos made up for it.
M. Gettier is a fine restaurant, with very few pretensions, but it does have one serious flaw for those who don't smoke. The tables are close together and the dining room is quite small -- too small, our waiter said, to designate any of it a no-smoking area. Many restaurants where this is true simply ban smoking, but not M. Gettier. If you're unlucky, you could be seated, as we were, next to a table of heavy smokers.
' Next: The Tomato Palace