Organic food with French twist

Rooster Cafe doesn't have complex food, but it pleases

Sunday Gourmet

November 02, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Every chef at some point in his career must dream of opening a little cafe with a few tables where he has total creative control and can produce the kind of food he loves. For most, reality sets in, and they get a job at somebody else's restaurant so they won't have to worry about food costs and hard-to-find help. But Mark Schek has taken the leap and opened the new Rooster Cafe in the Lark Brown shopping center in Elkridge.

Schek, a Maryland native and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has worked in prestigious restaurants, but what he wanted was to be at the stove of his own organic and natural foods bistro. Not a tofu and sprouts kind of place, mind you, but a fine, moderately priced New American restaurant with a French accent.

Be prepared for a letdown when you drive up to the Rooster Cafe. I expected something nicer than a shopping center storefront. Inside is better: The small dining room is done in the sunny yellows and blues of Provence, with a recurring rooster motif -- no surprise there -- and lots of wrought iron. Mark Rothko prints add a little edge to the decor. The room is nice but a bit cold and has the potential to be noisy, what with the tile floors and wooden-seated chairs.

The food will warm you up. Schek is still fiddling with the menu, so the $25 prix fixe may or may not be in effect when you eat there. If so, indulge. It includes any of the four appetizers, five entrees and four desserts. Given the menu's limits, we tried just about everything the kitchen has to offer, so I can speak with authority when I say this will probably be one of the best meals you've had in a while.

It's not very complicated food, but Schek gets it right. Tomato soup made with organic tomatoes, leeks, herbs and cream whispers of homey comforts while it delivers high style. Fettucini is more than background for two fat sea scallops and fresh basil; it has a depth of flavor and texture that makes you sit up and take notice. Buttery slices of portobello mushrooms snuggle in the little pottery dish they're baked in; a marinated tomato half offers a nice contrast of flavors. Of all the appetizers, only the green salad is less than memorable. The organic greens are fresh, and the champagne vinaigrette is beautifully balanced, but the four or five sweet spiced almonds and pecans (did we need both?) seem a little out of place.

Just because the Rooster Cafe is an organic restaurant, don't think it's vegetarian. In fact, the night we were there the menu didn't include a vegetarian entree, although I'm sure Schek would make one for you from the little roast potatoes, a chard flan, zucchini, tomatoes and the like. Vegetables are treated with respect, and there are plenty to choose from.

A small but fat rib eye steak (as much meat as anyone should be eating) offers robust pleasures; its deeply flavorful red wine sauce doesn't try to take over the plate. And what a pretty plate it is, with piped whipped potatoes and a julienne of bright green zucchini. Lamb, too, shows that meat is Schek's forte; this time the sauce is fragrant with black olives, a perfect foil to the blandly delicious polenta.

There are a couple of fish, salmon and sushi-grade tuna. The tuna is fine enough to order rare, and with enough character to stand up to its suave leek buerre blanc. But my favorite dish was a blanquette of free range hen.

To call it a French stew doesn't do justice to the elegance of the dish, served in a pretty little earthenware dish. The chicken is melt-in-the-mouth tender and its sauce, the essence of cream.

With dinner come the other essentials of a fine French meal: a crisp-crusted baguette with sweet butter and a short but well-thought-out wine list.

Even though Schek has worked as a pastry chef at Provence in Washington, dessert was the most controversial part of our meal. The chocolate tower was a bit too intensely chocolate and bittersweet for me, but others at the table loved it. I enjoyed a creme brulee with flavors of citrus and cinnamon; our friends like the classic version better.

But there was no dispute about a frozen almond nougat, chewy and crisp at the same time, robed in dried cranberries and chocolate shavings. This was the kind of dessert that comes as a complete surprise, but is so good its existence seems inevitable once you've tasted it.

At the moment, owner-chef Mark Schek is still finding his way, although the Rooster Cafe is already a very fine restaurant. The problem is that everything is cooked to order, and there is only one person at the stove and one person waiting tables. That doesn't matter yet because the place hasn't been discovered.

Only two other tables were taken the night we were there. But I worry that when every table is filled -- as they soon will be -- one cook and one waitress aren't going to be enough. The bottom line? Go on an off night or at an off time.

Rooster Cafe

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 6590 Old Waterloo Road, Elkridge

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner only

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$6; main courses, $15.95-$17.95

Call: 443-755-0600

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

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