Au Revoir

After 20 years, Roland Jeannier folds up his white tablecloths and shutters his classic French restaurant.

February 19, 2005|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

Roland Jeannier has hung up his saucepan.

The 73-year-old French chef is retiring and has sold Jeannier's, his 100-seat white-tablecloth restaurant known for classic fare, velvety sauces and luscious desserts. Its closing marks the end of what was one of the bastions of French food in Baltimore for the past 20 years.

Jeannier's was beloved by many for some of the same reasons that others were put off by it -- a fixed menu and a formal sensibility at a time when much of the restaurant industry was moving toward a lighter, more casual style of dining.

The new restaurant that will take its place in the Broadview Apartment building on West University Parkway will be a bistro and will feature "late night desserts, grilled foods, sauce on the side, " said Gerard Billebault, one of the new owners.

Jeannier closed the restaurant last week with little warning, saying he was ready to spend more time on his hobbies.

"I have been in this business 55 years," he said, noting that he took his first kitchen job as a teenager in Provence. "I have been working to please people, now I am the one who gets pleased."

As he conducted inventory in the restaurant this week, Jeannier, who lives in Roland Park, was witty, philosophical and reflective about his career.

His two grown sons are interested in computers, not cooking, he said: "One is in hardware, one is in software. I am in the kitchen."

The restaurant's sale was the culmination of a conversation that began about a year ago, according to Billebault, who operates Bonjour bakery on Falls Road with his wife, Gayle Brier.

"I went to Jeannier's one night and asked Roland, "When do you want to sell?'" Billebault recalled. "I had to talk Roland into it, but I did not have to talk too much."

Jeannier said ultimately he decided to retire while his health was good and while he could devote time to his hobby, oil painting. "I am going to take a break ... to see what my brain will do," he said.

The new owners, Billebault and Marc Dettori, who has worked as a maitre d' in a number of Baltimore area restaurants, plan to renovate the space in the Broadview and reopen in June as Tatin.

"We will be French, of course, because that is who we are, but not white-tablecloth French," said Billebault. Dettori will supervise the "front of the house," Billebault said.

Jeannier's was "one of the last vestiges" of the style of cooking that for years defined haute cuisine in the city, said restaurant consultant Diane Neas.

While its closing saddened her, Neas said she thought Baltimore still retains its taste for the kind of classic cooking Jeannier's offered.

"Traditional dining is a fundamental piece" of the region's restaurant scene, she said, noting that three French restaurants -- Petit Louis, Martick's and Tersiguel's -- remain open.

Restaurant critics generally liked Jeannier's. It delivered a "relaxing and very old-fashioned French meal," Cynthia Glover and David Dudley wrote in Baltimore magazine in 1999.

John Dorsey, The Sun's restaurant critic during the 1970s and '80s, said in an e-mail that the restaurant "always had good food and was comfortable, it never was trendy or pretentious -- it echoed Baltimore's character."

In a February 2000 review, current Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large raved about the flounder with chutney and banana, a smoked fish platter and quenelles, but noted that a previous reviewer had ordered exactly the same dishes at the restaurant 15 years earlier. A 2001/2002 Zagat Survey said that some restaurant-goers found Jeannier's "stuffy."

Jeannier said he came to the United States in 1958, after serving a stint in the French army where he cooked for officers. He worked for about four years in Boston restaurants before migrating to Baltimore to cook at Les Tuileries, a restaurant in the Stafford Hotel in the city's Mount Vernon neighborhood.

His late wife, Colette, liked Baltimore, primarily because it was warmer than Boston, Jeannier said, and persuaded him to buy a house here. He subsequently worked in a number of Baltimore area restaurants and became a partner in a restaurant group that included the Country Fare Inn. He left Baltimore for two years to work in St. Paul, Minn., before returning in 1985 to buy Jeannier's.

"When I came here, Baltimore needed some more gourmet food," Jeannier recalled. "But I learned to slowly introduce the gourmet food."

Along the way he also learned to cook the local delicacies. He delighted in serving dishes that blended what he called "the best of France and Maryland." Rattling off his favorites, he said, "the shad roe, the lobster bisque, the oysters, the escargot and -- ahhh -- the soft crab."

He sauted the soft crabs in a mixture of clarified butter and peanut oil.

"If you use only butter, it will burn, so you mix the two," he said, sounding rhapsodic as he described the cooking process. "You cannot use too much, the crab should not swim in oil."

As for what to put on the Maryland treasure, Jeannier, the accomplished French sauce maker, recommended a light touch. "A little almondine, or maybe a meuniere, but not too much.

"The soft crab," said the chef who was born in France and became beloved in Baltimore, "is good food by itself."

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