Here's a restaurant with some sharp ideas about how a French bistro should behave when it's in 21st-century Hampden — be just French enough, without being too French.
Le Garage opened last month in the site where The Dogwood restaurant had its valiant run. The space, which sits below street level, has never been considered an asset, but what the operators of Le Garage have done is rather cunning. Instead of fighting their location, they've exploited the space to create an environment that feels secluded and cool, like a place for folks in the know.
The place is divided into a narrow bar area and a wide dining room. The mood is upbeat, and some diners will find the music, and the general noise level, a bit rough. Many diners will bask in the amber-lit, well-tended environment.
So, yes, there is a French onion soup, a chicken-fried country pate and a salad Nicoise on the menu. And there is a section devoted to "tartines," which are nothing more than open-face sandwiches, topped with lovely and savory combinations of things like chorizo, brie and figs, or fava bean dip and curried cauliflower.
There is, too, a section of Belgian-style frites, which can be ordered with dipping sauces like black truffle aioli, bacon-buttermilk ranch and rosemary-garlic mayo.
The full name of this new Hampden establishment is, in fact, Le Garage Beer Bar & Frites, which is a tipoff to the modest intentions here. Le Garage wants to be the kind of place you could wander into on Tuesday night, settle in at the bar and make a nice dinner out of a tartine, an order of fries and a glass of beer, say a Peche Mortel, a coffee-flavored imperial stout brewed in Quebec.
Over three visits, two of them for the purpose of this review, we saw the bar at Le Garage full and lively. People seemed to be checking out a new spot, and taking to it.
But Le Garage, all modesty aside, is more than just a bar that serves food. There is a wide and well-designed dining room for Saturday-night diners. As it turned out, dinner here is very satisfying.
The executive chef is Sarah Acconcia, and Le Garage marks her return to Hampden, where she attracted a following at 13.5% Wine Bar. Between stints on The Avenue, Aconcina was the sous chef at Maggie's Farm in Lauraville, and you can see, and taste, how that restaurant's cheeky take on farm-to-table cuisine has informed her cooking here. Maggie's Farm follows its own rules, and so does Le Garage.
Know that the tartines, in particular, give Aconcina a palette for painting with burstingly fresh ingredients. The version with carefully arranged avocado, radishes and jalapeno made an ideal appetizer, stimulating for the eyes and the taste buds.
Know, too, that Aconcina is not afraid to batter things up and fry them, with impressive results. We loved an appetizer, a featured special, of mellow and salty cod croquettes, and a regular appetizer of chicken-fried country pate, which offered full-on richness without being heavy, and an entree of skate schnitzel, a lightly breaded fillet served with tender fingerling potatoes.
We can also recommend Le Garage's very straightforward versions of mussels, which arrive in a proper mussels pot, bathed in a buttery white-wine broth flavored with chorizo and fennel, and steak frites, which consistsof slices of intensely meaty bavette steak, a model Bearnaise sauce and golden-brown frites.
About the frites: We decided they were not just like the slightly crispy ones we remembered from a long-ago trip to Brussels, where frites stands grow like Starbucks. The frites at Le Garage are darker and denser, and we loved them all the same. The dipping sauces, though, were a little flat, in need of a dash of cayenne here or a splash of acidity there.
You'll want to explore the cocktail list, which has fresh variations on classics like a Moscow Mule made with the house's own ginger beer. You'll want, after your entrees, to have both a cheese course — because there's a goat cheese ricotta served with chestnut honey you have to have — and dessert. There's a hot, flaky, buttery croissant bread pudding with your name on it.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 911 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 410-243-6300, legaragebaltimore.com
Open: 5 p.m. to midnight. Sundays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays
Reservations: Online reservations are taken via Open Table; phone reservations are accepted as well
Prices: Appetizers: $2.50-$15; Entrees: $17-$24
Food: French bistro cuisine
Service: Energetic, informed and helpful
Parking: A free parking lot for Le Garage guests is behind the restaurant.
Children: The kitchen will make child-size portions of menu items.
Special diets: The kitchen will accommodate patrons with food allergies. The fries are gluten-free.
Noise level/televisions: Diners who may find normal conversation difficult in the main dining room can request seating in a small back dining room.
[Key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]