Au courant

At many of today's most popular French restaurants, the accent is on casual


Tim Zagat, co-founder and CEO of the influential Zagat restaurant guide, says when he eats with a tie on he feels like a foie gras goose being force-fed.

It's a little extreme, but you get his point. Like many of us, he loves good French food, but he'd just as soon do without the formality that traditionally surrounds haute cuisine palaces.

He would be happy at Baltimore's new Brasserie Tatin, which opened last week near the Johns Hopkins University, or Petit Louis or Timothy Dean or Limoges, to name four of the city's informal French restaurants.

Roddy Domacasse, executive chef of Brasserie Tatin, plans to keep the food "nice and simple," while being inventive in small ways. There's a perception of French food as heavy and rich, he says, and not everyone can eat that way.

"People conceive of haute cuisine as having to dress up," he says. "That's when you struggle. You're only busy Friday and Saturday nights for special occasions."

While the food at the new place includes traditional bistro fare like cassoulet and steak frites, Domacasse says the owners don't want to be too traditional, either in the decor (which is colorful and contemporary) or the food. A classic rack of lamb preparation, for instance, will come with Moroccan couscous.

"We want to have our own identity," says Domacasse. "We don't want to copy from Petit Louis." (One of the owners, Marc Dettori, was maitre d' at the other Gallic-inspired place in the neighborhood.)

This year, three important fine-dining restaurants featuring French and Continental food closed their doors: Jeannier's, Rudys' 2900 and Maison Marconi. Ostensibly we didn't lose them because of a lack of customers. Roland Jeannier retired. Rudy Speckamp and Rudi Paul closed their place rather than rework the menu to something more contemporary; the two owners also wanted to spend more time with their families. Maison Marconi was supposed to reopen in another location, but so far nothing has happened.

No white-tablecloth establishment has rushed in to replace them.

The reasons are various, but one of the most important ones is that Baltimoreans are like Tim Zagat -- they don't want to eat their duck confit with a tie on. They don't want to spend hours on a meal unless it's a very special occasion. They don't want to be intimidated by a sommelier, and they don't want to wonder if they're using the right fork for the fish.

Restaurateur Timothy Dean trained under renowned French chef Jean-Louis Palladin and operated his own five-star restaurant at the St. Regis in Washington, but he decided to open a bistro in Fells Point when he moved to Baltimore last year.

"Those guys [the staff at grand French restaurants] are ready to stab you in the neck if you picked up the wrong silverware," he says with a laugh. Dean may serve Palladin's chestnut soup and other haute cuisine items, but he wants people to come in and have fun. The boisterous atmosphere tells you they are.

The success of bistros is also a matter of customer base. Elliana Brocato, a 26-year-old graphic designer who lives in Canton, is serious about food. She eats out a lot, and at what she calls the "nicer" restaurants. In fact, she and her two roommates are working their way through Baltimore magazine's 50 Best Restaurants list. But her preference is bistros.

"Brasseries and bistros seem to be more young," she says. "The people I would want to mingle with are there."

Don't worry about the distinction between a bistro and a brasserie. Even the food professionals are vague. Both are small, informal and involve alcoholic beverages as well as food. In the United States, the terms are meaningless except to suggest that these are high-energy casual places where you can have good food and fun.

For her age group, Brocato says, money is probably the No. 1 deciding factor in picking a restaurant, but health concerns are a close second. "The calorie thing is big for women these days. A lot of places have become fusion even though they say `French bistro.' It helps the whole group to find something on the menu. Everybody's picky these days. Everybody's a vegetarian."

As for the money issue, in France you can expect bistro food to be moderately priced. It isn't so labor-intensive as haute cuisine, and the ingredients aren't as costly. Baltimore bistros don't seem to have figured that out yet. At the ones where dishes are a la carte, you can run up quite a bill.

"I'm hoping they'll become a little more sensitive to price," says local restaurant consultant Diane Neas. When she and her husband were traveling in southern France, he fell in love with cassoulet and wanted it "morning, noon and night."

"If the bill was $10 for it and a glass of wine, I'd be surprised," she says. "That's the element they're overlooking here. Cheese plates in France are very reasonable. Here I have sticker shock. I know what cheese costs."

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