From Fancy French To American Casual

DINING OUT

February 02, 1992|By JANICE BAKER

Until a few months ago, Cafe Normandie was Brasserie de Paris, but the word "brasserie" doesn't fit very well in American mouths, so the brasserie isn't a brasserie anymore (and maybe never was, brasseries tending toward Alsatian wines, beers and choucroutes). Also, under the old regime, the brasserie offered some fairly fancy, pricey entrees like rack of lamb in truffles sauce. Under the new regime, fancy is out.

The departed brasserie's menu read "Restaurant Francais"; the cafe's says, "Your Neighborhood Cafe." The old one spoke French: bisque de crevettes. The new one speaks English, e.g. crab and spinach turnovers. In attitude, the Brasserie was in earnest about serious French food -- so in earnest, some dishes ill-suited a shopping center restaurant. The Cafe Normandie, by contrast, charges modest prices and prepares healthy and casual dinners easy to enjoy after a workday. The changes are improvements. Our meal was first-rate.

Three of us began with a carpaccio of smoked salmon ($7.25), escargots saute ($5.95) and a cassolette of shrimp, scallops and mussels ($6.95). What distinguishes a plate of smoked salmon? -- the quality of the fish, how much there is of it, its freshness and its accompaniments. At the cafe all elements clicked. The salmon was delicate and clean-tasting, the serving was generous, and the adornments were attractive -- lettuce, capers, red onion, marinated cucumber slices, a lovely horseradish-sour cream sauce, and smoked apples. Smoked apples? They were a nice touch in a restaurant named Normandy, for the apple area of France. The peeled, sliced crescents of smoke-infused apple agreed with the smoked salmon.

What made the escargots work was an intriguing sauce emphatic with the licorice flavors of fennel, together with bacon, shallots and Chablis, and a dusting of Parmesan. The combination had a vitality that we admired.

The cassolette, too, combined its various parts well. The seafood was fresh, its textures were respected, and it was prettily arranged in a delicious, creamy, lobster-sweet sauce given depth by fresh spinach. Radicchio, carrot and lettuce were offered to the side.

Our entrees were fully as interesting and successful. Poppy and sesame seeds surfaced at the top and bottom of a slice of tuna with citron fillets ($14.50). We wondered whether the tight pebbling insulated the fish during cooking. Tuna turns dry and dull so quickly, chefs often aim now for a sashimi middle. But at the cafe, the tuna was cooked through, yet retained an appealing succulence. Beneath was a light quantity of sweet and acid ginger lime sauce. To the side were some fat french fries, and a mound of carrot and shoestring squash that had absorbed the sauce.

Veal medallions topped with woodland mushrooms ($13.95) combined thin, tender veal with mushrooms cooked to intensify fungal tastes. The jus-based sauce had force. To the side were two chunky triangles of golden-crusted polenta.

Pureed roasted garlic had been spooned over one end of a rolled and sliced fillet of pork loin ($15.95, a special), so that diners could apportion it at their own discretion, but discretion would have been a mistake. It was the garlic that brought the pleasant, plain piece of meat to life. On the same plate were snow peas, cooked somewhat longer than they would be in a Chinese kitchen, making them more juicy than snappy, and potato mashed with garlic puree.

We drank and liked a Beaulieu Beautour fume blanc ($17), suggested by a placard on the table. Of course, there were more expensive wines available, but the cafe seems watchful for ways to entice diners to come often.

From among a number of cakes and sorbets, we sampled an apple sorbet ($2.95) and a chocolate hazelnut dacquoise ($4). The apple sorbet was cold and bold, a refreshing, sweet conclusion to a hearty meal. The dacquoise was wonderful for offering very chocolate chocolate in a textured medium that was light and refined -- nut meringue bound with Italian meringue topped by a dusting of cocoa over a good chocolate sauce dotted with raspberry puree.

Our waiter was smooth and fast, but had a lot of work to do in the course of the evening. As a consequence, his behavior varied considerably, from patient to super-efficient to odd, e.g., the moment after he described all of the cafe's desserts, he turned on his heel and vanished for 10 minutes. No matter, some idiosyncrasies may be inevitable when the prices are as reasonable as these.

The cafe is situated outside the Beltway on Route 40. It's in the Normandy Shopping Center, immediately west of Patapsco Valley State Park.Next: Spike & Charlie's

CAFE NORMANDIE,

Normandy Shopping Center, 8480 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (410) 465-0007

HOURS:

Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and

Saturdays from 5:30 p.m. (closing time varies)

ACCEPTS: All major credit cards

FEATURES: Variety

NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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