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Cafe Bretton, 849 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd., Severna Park. (410) 647-8222. Open for dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays. MC, V. Prices: appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees, $9.95-$22.95. ** 1/2

The first thing you notice when you drive into Cafe Bretton's parking lot is the magnificent vegetable garden in back. Now this is unexpected. On the Eastern Shore, maybe -- but here, only a couple of miles from the traffic and strip malls of Route 2? It's a food lover's dream: a French restaurant that grows its own vegetables and herbs, and then serves them up fresher than fresh. And without planning it in advance, we had arrived during prime growing season.

Without the garden, we would have been less sure that the Cafe Bretton was where we wanted to be. The cottage, for lack of a better word, has been painted blue with rust-colored trim -- and ++ none too recently at that. A roadhouse, yes, but a French restaurant? Not very likely. This was the location of Conrad's, a well-regarded restaurant that closed when owner Conrad Lindley died a couple of years ago. But even then the exterior was unimpressive.

The inside is more appealing, except you might wonder why the owners, the DaSilvas, don't grow fresh flowers for the dining room instead of using artificial ones. The tables are covered in cheerful, red-checked oilcloth; paintings by local artists line the walls. It's a sweet little restaurant. You could wear shorts here, or you could dress up for a special occasion.

The food is -- what? The term "Continental" has gone out of style, so how about "European," with lots of French and touches of Italian. Owner Realino DaSilva is a native of Brazil, although that doesn't seem to have affected his menu much; his wife, Christiane, is French-born.

The Cafe Bretton has an Early Diner's Menu -- four courses for $16.95 -- but we ordered from the regular and daily specials menus. Choose the right dishes, and you'll have a wonderful meal here. Not everything, though, made us happy.

Dinner got off on the right foot with superb bread from a bakery down the street. Fresh, chewy and crusty, it was just what you want with this kind of food.

The delicious soup of the day, a pale-green cream of asparagus, was at once homey and delicate. (Other choices would be the expected French onion soup and an unexpected salmon chowder.)

First courses are quite limited, but we liked everything we tried. A smoked seafood sampler featured mussels, scallops, trout and thin slices of salmon with a pleasant wood-smoke edge. The lemony sauce perfumed with dill was just about perfect, while capers and chopped red onion added a bit of zip.

A mellow country pate mingled rough texture and smooth flavors with the added fillip of a tarragon dijonaise sauce. (The herbs were from the DaSilvas' garden.)

A salad of avocado and hearts of palm on lettuce didn't look like much, but the avocado was soft as silk and the salad was sparked with an engaging vinaigrette.

What followed didn't completely disappoint, but didn't quite live up to the great beginnings either. Grilled tuna was very fresh, but quite dry. Its relish of chopped tomatoes, cilantro, pepperoncini and shallots had plenty of kick, but it didn't do much for the fish.

Avoid the fusilli pescatore -- ours had very little seafood. You had to hunt for the few smoked mussels, smoked scallops and shrimp hidden among the tricolored pasta. The sauce of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies and basil didn't stand up well to the smoky flavor of what seafood there was.

The kitchen did best with a comforting coq au vin: half a tender, small chicken lovingly simmered in red wine. A deft touch married the winy sauce with mushrooms, onions and bacon.

On a more haute note, a full-flavored rack of lamb, fragrant with garlic and rosemary, was winningly grilled medium rare as ordered, then arranged over a pleasant red wine sauce.

Our expectations were high because of the Cafe Bretton's garden, but the vegetables ended up being asparagus and a potato stuffed with cheese. How about local corn, or fresh green beans, or even -- dare I say it? -- zucchini. We did get local tomatoes in our salads; they didn't look like much, but they practically exploded with luscious summer flavor.

Desserts at Cafe Bretton are something of an afterthought. According to our waitress, they aren't made on the premises, with the exception of the creme caramel, as quivery, creamy rich as it was fragile. The other choices are the usual but serviceable, like Key lime and lemon meringue pie.

Next: Polo Grill

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