We had an enjoyable evening at French Kitchen, the new restaurant inside the Lord Baltimore Hotel. It was enjoyable despite, or maybe because of how surreal it was to dine in such a large imposing space with only a few other tables filled.
Right now, the reason to go is for the small menu of classic French bistro fare, which a young kitchen is preparing with verve and authority. The chef here is Jordan Miller, who has clever notions about how to freshen up traditional French cuisine.
There are good, meaty lamb chops to be get, and a very satisfying boeuf bourguignon. They convinced me that Miller's kitchen knows how to slow-cook a short-rib so that it falls apart on your plate and to leave just enough fat on a lamb chop to keep it flavorful.
And a gorgeously designed entree of snowy white monkfish, served with navy beans, pureed fennel and crushed espelette peppers, is the first great dish of 2014. The monkfish had the consistency of lobster but with a deeper, almost woody taste, which went so nicely with the licorice flavor of the fennel.
Like other chefs, Miller likes to present his dishes as sculptures, complete with vivid purees, curling peels and intense powders. But none of it comes across as haphazard or arbitrary. Instead, it feels like Miller is figuring out each dish, ingredient by ingredient.
Nor does it seem like Miller is fighting against French cuisine. He keeps the flavors essential, robust and hearty. You're inclined to root for Miller, whose good cooking at The Chesapeake was ultimately undermined by circumstances beyond his control.
I like the simple format of French Kitchen's menu, which included four hors d'oeuvres, four salads and nine entrees on our visit. That seems like just the right amount both for a new kitchen, and for the diner, too, who can feel confident ordering what's on the menu.
We liked the steak tartare appetizer, a generous and glistening portion of raw beef, served with shallots, capers and a perfect poached egg on crostini. And we loved the salad of beets, a symphony of roasted, pickled, pureed, raw and even candied red, yellow and rose-colored beets, served with fresh chevre and pecans.
The thick and velvety version of French onion soup effectively brought out the natural sweetness of the onions. Garnished with a cheese-topped crouton, this was a more proper version than the one nine out of 10 people would prefer, served in a crock with a glob of cheese on top. When we visited, the menu's charcuterie plate wasn't being served; instead, Miller had whipped up a goose-liver pate, served in a small crock and topped with a port-wine aspic.
Good crusty bread came with the pate, and one of the most reassuring things about French Kitchen was the quality of the bread. It's just plain nice to get a basket of bread, filled with made-on premises focaccia and lavash-style crackers, brought to the table, along with a ramekin of in-house marinated olives.
The kitchen really hits its stride with entrees, particularly the monkfish. I'd easily recommend it as well as the boeuf bourguignon or the lamb. The only misfire was the duck entree, a good-looking plate of duck slices, lentils and olives. But the duck itself was fatty and underdone.
French Kitchen is a work in progress. The restaurant occupies the very grand, very large mezzanine space, where the hotel's original 1928 dining room, the Cavalier Room, flourished for a decade or two. Recently renovated, the space has been re-named the Versailles Room, which is a case of truth in advertising.
This is big room, and it's lavished with chandeliers, candelabra and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. You should know that dining here, when only a few other tables are occupied, is definitely a little surreal.
And while the food never felt diminished by the space, the wine list, about 15 bottles in all, did feel too small. It helped to have a cheerful waitress, who seemed genuinely proud to be serving Miller's food.
If you're willing to wait a few weeks, all of the decor will be in place. There will be four additional banquets, new prints on the lampshades and other finishing touches. And if you wait until March, you'll be able to meet your friends before dinner in the LB Tavern, a lobby-level English pub-style bar now under construction on the lobby level.
You'll want to dine here with very good friends who share your sense of humor and a sense of discovery. That said, I think you're in for a good time.
Where: 20 W. Baltimore St., downtown
Contact: 410-539-8400, lordbaltimorehotel.com
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Prices: Appetizers: $6-$12; entrees: $18-$28
Food: Traditional French bistro food like boeuf bourguignon and onion soup
Service: Kind and enthusiastic
Parking/accessibility: Valet parking is available
Children: There is not a children's menu but the kitchen will accommodate children.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining rooms. There are no televisions to be seen.
[Star key: Superlative: 5 ; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]