It seems a lifetime ago that Lenny and Gail Kaplan, restaurateurs extraordinaire, helmed the wildly popular Polo Grill at the Colonnade, a Baltimore fixture whose keys to success were a hunt-club cache, reliable Continental cuisine, and the owners' iron will to succeed. Since the Kaplans retired in 2002, a dizzying number of owners (four? it's hard to keep track) have come and gone in rapid succession, all failing to reignite the venue's former glory.
Last year, the place reopened as Alizée, touting a "fushi"-filled menu of Asian-inflected items that patrons seemed to either loathe or love. The concept didn't take off, and before you knew it, two successive chefs bailed. Observers began talking about a Colonnade curse.
Then, in late summer, Christian deLutis, former chef at some of the most popular American bistros in town (Corks, The Wine Market, and The Dogwood) took over the kitchen, and suddenly things started looking up. Credit real-estate kingpin and Colonnade owner Richard Naing for calling in deLutis to create a more accessible, albeit innovative, menu—one that suits the mix of out-of-towners, JHU faculty, and Roland Parkers who are the restaurant's standard clientele. The fushi is gone, replaced by Modern American, French-forward cuisine. The result? After a slow start, Alizée is suddenly buzzing with the kind of crowds the place hasn't seen since its Polo Grill days.
Back when we tried out the revamped Alizée in early September, the kitchen was still finding its legs. A side of potatoes au gratin was more gummy than creamy, the horseradish-crusted cod was on the salty side, and the poulet roti was dry and undistinguished. The underwhelming food, combined with an overly intrusive waiter had us agreeing that the place needed a tad more work.
But a subsequent visit a few weeks later proved more promising. Our appetizer of seared scallops was frankly spectacular, the lush seafood gilded with garlicky rouille and bathed in sea-scented bouillabaisse foam. (Yes, deLutis is something of a foam fan, but he keeps it under control.) We also fell for the beef tartare, which was hand cut into tiny squares and topped with an encapsulated globe of Worcestershire "caviar." The cod, its bracing cover of fresh horseradish countered by rich sides of smoked eel-infused potato coddie and braised leeks, was no longer salty but perfectly seasoned. The service was more polished, too—our waitress, a model of restraint and efficiency. Things were definitely looking up.
And then even more good stuff started happening: positive reviews, happy web chatter from recent diners—we even started to hear friends talking up the place. One night, catching a drink in Alizée's bar, we watched as the restaurant and then the bar filled up with masses of revelers. Indeed, the bar, once reliably tomb-like on weeknights, has once again become a neighborhood watering hole. Maybe it's that the space is more sleek and inviting than it was after the first post-Lenny revamp; maybe it's the duck-fat popped popcorn (!) it's serving. Whatever, Alizée's bar is now a bona fide see-and-be-seen place to hang.
The restaurant has other considerable charms in its favor. The dining room is subdued, refined, and quietly conservative without being stuffy. It's a soothing backdrop for the more adventurous food, with warm brick-colored walls and lots of wood, a welcoming fireplace, and unobtrusive art. Another plus is the recent addition of a wine shop cum tasting room in the Colonnade's lobby right across from the restaurant. As it is, Alizée's wine list has been a strong point from the beginning, fitting for a place dubbed a wine bar. The list, full of choices both inexpensive and luxe, is expanding steadily and also offers many reasonable selections by the glass.
And the food under deLutis's tenure has markedly improved since our first outing. Lightly smoked raw oysters were a briny treat, accompanied by a slightly fiery, chunky mignonette that knocked our socks off. Housemade charcuterie—this night a boudin blanc, a slide of lush chicken liver pâté, and a hearty pork sausage—was Euro-worthy. We decided this latest go-round to give the poulet another try. We discovered an entirely different bird—a tender, crisp-skinned thigh and leg partnered with a breast, all juicy perfection, having been roasted—as the menu proclaims—in butter. The only less than perfect note on the plate was the tiny field carrots, which were underdone as opposed to al dente. Our wild salmon entree was all quite fine, beginning with the beautifully moist fish and continuing with the excellent sides, a crème-fraîche-laced bundle of shredded cabbage, sweet and candy-like chiogga beets, and a crispy wedge of potato rosti. The flavors of the food shone through, pure and simple.
Maybe there's a lesson in that. The old Polo Grill succeeded in part by offering mostly traditional American and Continental dishes with innovative touches and novel ingredients in the sides and sauces. It was a formula that seemed to make everyone happy, tastemakers and conservative diners alike. You can see that sort of yin-yang reflected now more clearly in the current kitchen, where deLutis's cooking is focused on execution rather than flash. It's an ethos reflected as well in the house-made desserts, like a rich yet light-as-air chocolate mousse cake and a bourbon-infused homemade vanilla ice cream. Yum.
In short, it may be that the restaurant in the Colonnade is finally on track to success. Under deLutis's tutelage, Alizée is becoming the perfect spot for casual drinks and dining (there's a very nice "lite fare" menu in the bar) as well as a main-event-worthy evening of serious dining. Perhaps the chef, along with his boss, Richard Naing, have successfully borrowed a little of that old Lenny Kaplan mojo.