Classic French with intriguing twists

November 13, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Brasserie Tatin is a restaurant that opened in the right place at the right time.

The night we ate there, the maitre d' was turning away people who didn't have reservations, and the dining room was just starting to empty out when we left after 10 p.m. Apparently, Tatin has been slammed every night since it opened.

Who knew there was such a pent-up demand for French food, given that Jeannier's - the French restaurant it replaced - would probably have been half empty on a chilly Thursday night? But Baltimoreans are crowding into the newly renovated dining room, cheerfully stylish with just a touch of retro and decked out in aqua and pumpkin. A bright contemporary painting is the focal point of the front of the restaurant. The space has been opened up so you can now stand in the lounge in front and see all the way back to the fireplace in the dining room - except that you can't, because every table is taken.

Roddy Domacasse, formerly at Linwood's, oversees an intriguing menu, filled with French favorites that often have a bit of a twist. It's ambitious for a self-styled brasserie, with house-made pastas and expensive entrees along with the expected small plates, steak frites and the like. The bistro wine list, likewise, has a little something for everyone, with around 150 bottles - not limited to French - and thoughtful selections by the glass.

When things settle down, this could be a very fine restaurant. Right now, it's a good one (although waiting an hour for our entrees was not fun). Sometimes the chaos worked in our favor, as when the waitress brought us a plate of frogs legs in hazelnut brown butter by mistake. Because she said, "Compliments of the chef," we didn't question it. (Later she came back and sheepishly admitted her mistake.)

The kitchen produces French classics like those frogs legs almost flawlessly - the honest, appealing split pea soup; garlic-scented escargots; crisp-skinned duck confit with green lentils; potatoes dauphine (glorious fried puffs made with mashed potatoes and choux pastry.)

A pan-seared shrimp and crab mousse is like biting into a cloud, and venison loin is perfection when you have each bite with a bit of apple and a bit of chestnut-foie gras mousse. But my friend ordered it medium, and it came quite rare - surprising because the meat was sliced and arranged on the plate.

The pasta of the day may seem pricey at $22, but the silky fettuccine was well worth it, dressed as it was in a delicate cream sauce, bay scallops and pretty little shrimp.

The fish of the day was skate, something the two men at our table couldn't believe. ("Junk fish," they said almost in unison.) But the fan-shaped wing, the only part that's eaten, creates a beautiful shape on the plate; and shoe leather would taste good if it were sauced with brown butter and an apple dice.

Only one dish was an out-and-out failure, the showy plateau de fruits de mer, which comes on a three-tiered rack. Beautiful large shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and oysters are served on ice; but the mussels and clams were so gritty that I was still tasting the sand in the back of my mouth when I got home.

Although I have great nostalgia for Jeannier's oeufs a la neige (floating island), a dessert I still crave, I have to admit that Brasserie Tatin's creations are its equal. And at $6.50, they are quite the bargain. To put that in perspective, the desserts we had at a pub recently were all $8.

True, the crepe was a little chewy, but its Suzette sauce was so good it was hard not to lick the plate. A multi-layered cake of mousses and chocolate with a fragile creme anglaise had no flaws. Chocolate lovers will adore the flourless chocolate chestnut cake, although it's not always on the menu.

All these are grown up desserts, unlike the baked Alaska. But who can resist baked Alaska, that combination of ice cream and cake covered in warm meringue? Tatin makes it with homemade ice cream.

Those who were hoping that Jeannier's replacement would be an inexpensive bistro will be disappointed. Brasserie Tatin is a serious restaurant - although not too serious - and priced accordingly. Its popularity makes the service a real question mark. One day, though, things will settle down. I'm waiting until then to go back.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Brasserie Tatin

Address: 105 W. 39th St., Homewood

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

Appetizers: $6.50-$20

Entrees: $18 - $36

Call: 443-278-9110

Food: *** (Three and a half stars)

Service: ** (Two stars)

Atmosphere: *** (Three stars)

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

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