MARIE LOUISE BISTRO
STYLE: Pretty, polished setting with exposed brick and tin ceilings.
CUISINE: Simple French cuisine with a nod to Mediterranean dishes.
YOU'LL FIND: A relaxed atmosphere with casual but efficient service.
"Is this the old Gampy's spot?" we wondered. Those of us who remember (albeit fuzzily) the Great American Melting Pot, (in)famous for late-night goings-on, may be especially appreciative of the prettiness of Marie Louise Bistro, which has taken over the long-vacant space. Measured against the somewhat jarring décor of yore, it is all the more impressive. The menu merits kudos for being streamlined, straightforward, and reasonably priced.
Clearly, many hours and major coin have gone into the refurb. It is beautiful, and elegantly so. The second floor has been truncated to open up the bright front area, creating a dramatic, soaring space that feels very Continental. Tidily appointed in white tiles, the restaurant is populated by a clutch of small tables and a coffee/service counter, which sits next to gleaming cases of pretty pastries. Exposed brick, pressed-tin ceilings, and amber lighting impart a rustic, vaguely subterranean feel to the large rear dining area. In between is a wide staircase trimmed in wrought iron leading to a lofty mezzanine where additional seating, a small private room, stately bar, and splendid view can be found. This upstairs area has a pervasive laid-back vibe.
Servers here are affable and generally attentive, but seem to suffer from inexperience or lack of training. Too often unable to answer basic questions about the food (and presumably unaware that finding out and reporting back might be a nice thing to do), they are, however, earnest, charming, and generally prompt. Even the sticklers at our table lightened up quickly. Service can be a bit casual but is devoid of any pretense. And this is a bistro after all. What would one expect?
Sadly, "bistro" is an often-misappropriated moniker these days, having all but lost its original connotation of inexpensive, generous portions of cuisine grand-mère, home cooking served in a comfortable setting. But Marie Louise Bistro is as close to the genuine article as we've seen. The refreshingly concise menu is a tight roster of uncomplicated French classics (though pâté is oddly absent), sprinkled with slight diversions from around the Mediterranean and a few regional nods to boot, at prices that suddenly qualify French as an everyday option. Consistency issues exist, but the kitchen generally executes well and with evident care.
The menu is apparently a work in progress, as there are some discrepancies. The otherwise enjoyable Bistro salad's "mixed greens" turned out to be just chopped romaine. But the dressing—Parmesan vinaigrette—was delicious.
An unexpected Spanish black-bean soup lacked compelling depth and was merely agreeable, while the French onion soup earned high marks despite differing slightly every time we ordered it—sometimes sans crouton, other times nettled with undercooked onion shards. But it was always piping hot, possessing intense, concentrated but never salty broth spiked heavily with thyme. Mussels in an unusually subtle white-wine-and-butter treatment made for a superlative appetizer—an onyx tangle of fat, sweet specimens, every one a keeper. The shrimp, though, simmered carefully in a powerful, exciting garlic sauce, strayed a bit far with a prominent sherry flavor.
Sandwiches are served on wonderfully supple, toasted, baguette-like rolls, and are accompanied by slender fries that taste great but sometimes beg a second crisping in hot oil. A chicken breast dressed with pesto and roasted red peppers remained moist via skillful grilling. Onion bits, interspersed within the prodigious Bistro burger, augured home-style goodness. The roasted Maryland tomato sandwich seemed too ambitious an undertaking, especially in the dead of winter. Alas, it was. The wan tomato slices were standard hothouse and not roasted (a mistake on the menu, we were told). It was disappointing, but to management's credit, cheerfully stricken from both table and check.
Bouillabaisse teemed with perfectly cooked clams, mussels, shrimp, and fish in a dense, complex stew with a base of deep seafood flavor. A surprisingly stout fillet of sole was topped à la Provençal with a piquant tomato, garlic, and basil mixture, a nice foil to the mild, almost creamy fish beneath. The rich, smoky duck confit was exemplary—two whole leg quarters of tender flesh, pink from slow cooking. Unfortunately, it, like the sole, was served over a rather generic bed of plain couscous. Beef bourguignon was redolent of red wine and aromatics, but was oddly topped with crumbled bacon and served with mashed potatoes that, while incredibly buttery and delicious, denied us the pleasure of sopping up the flavorful liquid. A moderately priced selection of wines is available on a rotating, yet-to-be finalized list, with a handful served by the glass. Currently, dessert consists solely of the aforementioned pastries, which, for now, are made off-premises.
There is a courageousness in offering largely authentic French fare at approachable prices, and congratulations to proprietress Marie Louise Ransome for embracing the beauty of simplicity and keeping the bistro real, so to speak.
Marie Louise Bistro, 904 N. Charles St., 410-385-9946. Hours: coffee bar, opens 7 a.m.; restaurant, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Appetizers, $4.25-10.95; salads, $4.75-12.95; sandwiches, $7.95-10.95; entrées, $9.95-20.95; pastries, $2.75-5.95