To those who shuddered upon hearing that Louie's the Bookstore Cafe was sold in April, here are some words of comfort. Not much has changed at this Baltimore institution since John DeLauro and his wife, Catherine Ronalds-DeLauro, came down from New York to run the restaurant and bookstore Jimmy Rouse started 17 years ago.
Their focus has been to get the kitchen and the young waitstaff running in sync, rather than to make major changes to the food or decor. The cafe still blends Old World and urban, art and funk, to maintain its unique personality. Just as before, the shelves up front are lined with books, the scarlet rag-rolled walls in back are hung with rotating exhibitions, and local musicians still play classical music every night.
The menu, as eclectic as ever, now has a few more entrees, including strip steak and grilled salmon. They join such signature dishes as curried Chestertown chicken and Louie's orange-ginger stir-fry.
A new pasta offering, penne with sun-dried and Roma tomatoes, got a boost of flavor from fresh garlic and sharp Parmesan. We tried ours with slivers of chicken, but you can order it plain or with shrimp. It was a simple dish, but one that worked.
We also liked Louie's shrimp stir-fry with zucchini and red peppers, which leans more toward Thai than Chinese. Our hard-working waiter tried to persuade us to try it over rice, but we favored the way the sweet and spicy sauce glazed our wide rice noodles.
Vegetarians have a lot of choices at Louie's. One special that often turns up is the butternut squash etouffee. Baring little resemblance to its New Orleans cousin, this aromatic stew was seasoned with nutmeg and cayenne, and served over rice that seemed fragrant with jasmine. The dish was cooked perfectly, with the soft chunks of sweet squash still firm enough to hold their shape.
There's nothing quite like biting into a soft-shell crab sandwich - hot, crisp, crunchy and velvety soft in one bite. Our cornmeal-coated crab sandwich was all of those wonderful things. But the crab was so scrawny, it barely seemed legal.
If you've only been to Louie's for lunch, you may have missed some of their terrific appetizers. Baby mussels were luscious in basil cream with wine and garlic. The sauce was so good, we could have lapped it up like bisque. The vegetable and shrimp pancake, golden and soft, turned slivered cabbage and scallions into something special, and a creamy mixture of sherried crab filled a square of puff pastry for a lovely crab tart.
Only the Middle Eastern salad was a disappointment - an arrangement of under-seasoned falafel on mesclun greens with feta and a few cold grains of rice thrown in almost as an afterthought.
Crumbly chocolate-chip cheesecake and smooth chocolate mousse pie, both made with thick chocolate crumb crusts, and tart strawberry rhubarb pie enveloped in golden pastry, are just three of the many desserts baked daily by the staff. Leave room to try at least one.
Louie's the Bookstore Cafe
518 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; brunch on Sundays
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$7.95; entrees, $5.95-$16.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 6/18/98