On a dark and stormy night—thanks, Snoopy—we scurried under the almost-garish, red-white-and-blue awning to gain entrance to the Foreman Wolf restaurant group’s latest venture: Petit Louis Bistro on the Lake. We’d been to the original one in Roland Park several times and were curious to see how this outpost in Howard County compared. The setting on Lake Kittamaqundi in the heart of Columbia is beautiful, even during a spring downpour. And when we went back a second time, a sunny day even increased the scenic benefits of its location.
But the real discovery is that, while the Columbia and Roland Park restaurants share the same name and menu, there is a certain joie de vivre at the lake that’s lacking in Baltimore. The city spot is fun, too, but it’s crowded, noisy, and clearly a who-knows-whom spot. You can feel like an outsider if you’re not a regular diner.
At Petit Louis Bistro on the Lake, there’s a diversity of customers and conversations, similar to what you might actually find in a Parisian wine bar. In fact, the restaurant’s Belle-Époque décor is reminiscent of renowned places like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore in the Sixth Arrondissement. At Petit Louis, the deep reds, gilded-gold details, marble, and handsome woods make you feel as if you’ve stepped across the ocean into a time of American expats like Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Fitzgerald.
The space is much larger, too, with a spacious bar, a front room with a view of the lake, and cozy, convivial dining areas in the back. And the staff, in typical Foreman Wolf fashion, is congenial and professional in all areas of service, from the maître d’hotel to the sommelier (making suggestions from the 300-plus labels of French wine) to the waiters and waitresses. But with all their perfunctory performances, there’s no pomposity present at all.
The casual French fare also lives up to expectations under executive chef James Lewandowski—though Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf run the whole shebang. You can dine inexpensively and satisfyingly with an omelet du jour or an inches-high quiche Lorraine, or indulge in a multi-course, à-la-carte meal, starting with a fine selection of hors d’oeuvres.
We began our own food journey with some impressive starters, though one, in particular, stood out—the beignets de crevettes, a wonderful mélange of savory fried fritters, including shrimp and asparagus, in a garlic aioli sauce. We also appreciated the simplicity of the Roquefort salad (salade au Roquefort) with romaine, endive, walnuts, and an exquisite blue cheese.