What's not to love?

Restaurant: The informal French food at Les Folies is so good, you won't care that it doesn't match the Tuscan decor

Sunday Gourmet

September 26, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Blink and the restaurant at 2552 Riva Road has a new name and a new identity. First it was Scirocco Mediterranean Grill, then Michaelangelo. Now it's become Les Folies, a traditional French brasserie -- if traditional French brasseries ever opened in Tuscan villas. While the menu is filled with pate de campagne, coq au vin and steak frites, the decor is still a holdover from when, a few months ago, this was an upscale Mediterranean restaurant.

There are the same stucco walls, terra-cotta pots, wrought-iron detailing and handsome copper-topped bar. The dining room is pleasant enough but a little disconcerting -- you keep thinking you ought to be eating minestrone here instead of soupe a l'oignon.

Still, Les Folies is a restaurant for those who love the kind of informal French food you find at a brasserie, and what's not to love? Particularly when it's done as well as restaurateur Alain Matrat, formerly connected to Cafe Normandie, and chef Jean-Claude Galan can do it.

First courses are uniformly delicious.

Plump escargots come bathed in a lovely garlic butter sauce. Lentil soup, dark and rich, has a subtext of flavors that will keep you interested until the last bite, although it's really too substantial for a first course. A perfectly steamed whole artichoke is presented with the choke removed, a beautifully balanced vinaigrette on the side.

The star of our appetizers turns out to be a crab-meat flan, the huge snowy lumps barely held together by the quiveringly delicate custard. It's gilded with a silky lobster sauce.

All of these good things come with excellent French bread, at once soft and crusty, which we eat too much of before any of our food arrives at the table.

Our expectations are high after those appetizers, and our entrees don't let us down. Coq au vin -- that homey combination of chicken and red wine -- is exemplary, a fragrant stew filled with tiny pearl onions, mushrooms and bits of bacon.

Fois de veau lyonnaise, thin slices of calf's liver cooked to just-pink tenderness, has an equally wonderful sauce. Dark and complex, it's at once assertive and delicate. The dish comes with smooth whipped potatoes wittily decorated with three crisp waffle fries and a fine ratatouille.

We are mildly disappointed that the loup de mer grille, which is a specialty of the house, is served with the same potatoes and ratatouille. The kitchen should vary the vegetables to fit the dish -- in this case, a beautifully fresh rockfish grilled with olive oil, lemon juice and herbs to juicy doneness.

We aren't disappointed in the rockfish itself, but it is a problem that the waiter debones it at the table. This isn't a swift operation, and the rest of our dinners cool while we wait. But otherwise the service is fine.

All three of the house specialties are seafood; we try one other, the bouillabaisse. (The third is paella.) Les Folies' shellfish stew is a fine mix of lobster, clams, mussels and fish in a tomato-studded broth fragrant with saffron.

Until you get the dessert menu you won't know that souffles must be ordered 20 minutes in advance. If you don't feel like waiting, you could have one of the fine pastries made in house, like the tarte Tatin, or berries with sabayon.

We loved the creme brulee, but the piece de resistance was the gateau Basque, a pleasingly dense cake edged with plums soaked in Armagnac.

LES FOLIES

Food: ***1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: 2552 Riva Road, Annapolis

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, nightly for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.50-$9.25; main courses, $12.95-$19.95

Call: 410-573-0970

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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