One Price, Six Courses, French-bistro

DINING OUT

June 26, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Stone Mill Bakery and Ecole, Green Spring Station in Lutherville, (410) 821-1358. Open Fridays and Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. MC, V. No smoking. $32.50 prix fixe, plus 15 percent service. *** First there was the Stone Mill Bakery in Mount Washington, where bread fanatics could finally find crusty French loaves to compete with the Marvelous Market's in Washington, D.C.

Then a year later, at the end of '92, owner Billy Himmelrich opened a second Stone Mill in Green Spring Station.

You could tell, however, that he wasn't going to be content forever turning out baguettes, croissants and focaccia. You could always get sandwiches and salads as well as bread and pastries at both locations. Then he added a line of gourmet-to-go foods.

Next a sign went up at Green Spring for cooking classes. The space next to the bakery was renovated to make room for the school. (Mr. Himmelrich, a Baltimore native, trained at La Varenne cooking school in Paris. He worked in restaurants in France and Washington before returning to his hometown to open a bakery.)

Soon the school turned into Ecole, a French-style bistro.

The Baltimore area has nothing quite like it: For a fixed price of $32.50 plus 15 percent service, you get a six-course meal, with a choice of two first courses and three main. The menu changes every couple of weeks. It's the kind of food that needs wine, but Ecole doesn't have a liquor license. So when you call for reservations (and you must call for reservations) ask what the selections are that night. Or plan to drop by the Wine Merchant in the same shopping center after you've seen the menu.

Although six courses may sound daunting, keep in mind that this is a bistro. It's not very formal. The small dining area holds a few white-clothed tables with white paper on top. It's a pretty room, with the last rays of the sun streaming in the large arched windows, and white azaleas blooming riotously outside. Two geometric Oriental rugs add bold shades of salmon, peach and blue to the room.

Remember that this is bistro food -- meat and potatoes fare even though there are some pretty little frills. Don't expect elegant sauces and plates arranged like paintings.

Those little frills include, of course, Stone Mill bread. Not the French rolls and sweet butter you'd think you'd get, but a tiny basket of quarter-size slices of baguette, health and raisin breads (fabulous raisin bread made with two kinds of raisins).

Canapes come first: this evening, buttery homemade Melba toasts with a dollop of creme fraiche, a little caviar and a few chives. Then flaky little turnovers stuffed with forcemeat of swordfish and herbs.

One of the first courses that evening was a swirl of angel-hair pasta and shavings of cheese with a gently charred grilled red pepper and tender-crisp snow peas. Bring me more of this and forget the rest of the meal.

But the other choice was equally good: three fat grilled shrimp curled around a creamy mound of zucchini and fresh basil puree.

Main courses included loin of lamb, salmon fillet and a veal chop. Mr. Himmelrich will also prepare a vegetarian dish if you give him advance notice.

None of these quite reached the heights of what came before. Best was the thick, fresh salmon fillet bedded down on a faintly sweet white corn and black olive relish. Both the meats were good; but the grilled veal chop need to be seasoned with more authority (especially because there's no salt and pepper on the table) and the lamb, with fresh mint, was cooked too long for my taste.

Dinners came with perfectly cooked asparagus, tender but still a little "bitey"; herb-roasted new potatoes and a great mass of shiitake and button mushrooms -- more mushrooms, surely, than anyone was going to finish.

A simple green salad followed -- not the ubiquitous Euro mix, which can get boring after a while and isn't always as fresh as it should be given its price. This was Ecole's own mix of red leaf and greens in a very French vinaigrette.

With the Stone Mill's good coffee came tiny madeleinelike cookies, then it was time for dessert. The chocoholic among us was appalled at the selection, given the gorgeous chocolate choices we saw when we passed by the bakery case.

But I'm tired of overly rich desserts after large meals. I loved the homemade berry sorbet with fresh strawberries, blackberries and blueberries. Even better was a warm French apple tart with a bit of homemade vanilla ice cream. (OK, this was rich. But not overly rich.) The only failure was a floating island with fresh blueberry sauce. Maybe I'm too set in my ways, but the meringue needed its traditional custard sauce. The blueberry sauce tasted light and fine, but meringue without creme anglaise is just undercooked egg white.

Next: O'Leary's

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