L'Auberge, 505 S. Broadway, (410) 732-1151. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays for dinner only. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no.
Last March, L'Auberge, a small, classic French restaurant in Fells Point, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. That kept the Small Business Administration from auctioning it off, but it hurt L'Auberge because people weren't sure whether it was open or closed -- and if open, how it might have changed.
The recession has hurt L'Auberge, too, as it's hurt most restaurants that don't specialize in cheap food. And the location doesn't help either. The restaurant isn't in the trendy part of Fells Point, and it's not close enough to the harbor. L'Auberge is dependent on word-of-mouth and advertising to bring in customers; it's not going to get much walk-in trade where it is -- or even people driving by and saying, "Hey, that looks nice. Let's eat there next time."
A phone call established that L'Auberge was still open, although closed Sundays and Mondays and not serving lunch at all -- at least through the summer. Once we got there, I realized I'd forgotten what a handsome little restaurant this is. To enter it from South Broadway is to step into another world.
Inside L'Auberge looks solid and well-established -- as if it's been here much longer than its six years. The long, narrow downstairs dining room is paneled in dark wood with deep green wallpaper above the chair rails. Antique cupboards and cases hold wine bottles and intriguing desserts. The table linen is fresh and white, the crystal sparkles, the chairs are comfortable. You can't help but like this room, even if the tables are so close together you keep hearing the waiters recite their litany of specials. (Every food critic who's reviewed L'Auberge since it opened has complained about this endless recitation, so I won't put in my two cents.)
When we got there at 7 on a weekday evening, there was only one other couple having dinner. Ah, but they were speaking rapid, fluent French, which got us in the mood. By the time we left, the dining room had filled up nicely, so don't count L'Auberge out yet.
The menu was much more limited than I remember it. No lamb, no duck, no chicken and no pastas. And of the items that were on the menu, that evening there were no clams or mussels as appetizers and no salmon. The waiter told us this was the summer menu, although there was nothing particularly seasonal about it. Even the recited list of specials seemed shorter than usual. (I'm not complaining.)
The meal that followed was good, if a bit slipshod in spots. Take the vichyssoise ($4). It was smooth as silk, with a flavor that was out of this world. But by the time it got to us it was room temperature, not chilled. Or take the plate of fresh vegetables -- broccoli, tomatoes and carrots -- meant for us to share. There was literally one tablespoon of the perfectly cooked carrots for the three of us.
A first course of salmon with shrimp mousse wrapped in puff pastry with a lobster and saffron sauce ($6) -- doesn't that sound glorious? And it almost was, except that the puff pastry was soggy, not flaky and crisp. But no fault could be found with a salad of mixed greens and radicchio tossed with tiny cubes of locally smoked pheasant and goat's cheese in a splendid vinaigrette.
Of our main courses, the best was a chateaubriand for one ($20), 10 ounces of prime fillet decorated with a spoonful of smooth hollandaise on one side and an equally seductive Choron sauce (bearnaise tinged with tomato) on the other. Veal scallops ($15.50) were tender and white in a lovely wine sauce, but the meat was somewhat overshadowed by the quantity of sauce and sauteed mushrooms.
The only dish I would turn thumbs down on wasn't something I'd order in the first place. But it sounded good to my friend, and I was willing to approach it with an open mind. Nothing was wrong with the impeccably fresh tuna ($16.50) or how it was grilled, but the light orange sauce with pecans would have been wonderful on duck -- not fish. It was simply too sweet for seafood.
Whatever you order for a main course, save room for one of L'Auberge's superb desserts. The restaurant makes its own gelato, and with it creates, say, layers of the homemade ice cream and meringue with whipped cream and raspberry sauce, or a delicious poached pear stuffed with vanilla gelato. And someone should order L'Auberge's signature creme brulee. The incredibly rich, creamy custard with its crisp browned-sugar top, served warm, is a little bit of paradise right here in Fells Point.