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.
Everything on the menu is listed under its French name with the ingredients in English. For ease of reading, I’m going to describe the dishes so you won’t need a translator.
Instead of aubergines croquantes, for example, let’s just say that this is a delicious stacked dish of crispy eggplant slices, tomatoes, and chèvre with a pungent pistou of crushed basil, garlic, and olive oil. The lentil salad, while pedestrian looking, was an enticing mix of lentils, duck confit, and sherry vinaigrette. And the white asparagus with béarnaise sauce gets an A-plus with a poached egg on top.
The seduction continued with our entrees. The salmon grille capitalized on the latter appetizer above, minus the egg, marrying the pink fish with the delicate asparagus. The kitchen also excelled in braised meats—from the short-rib special of the day to a succulent lamb shoulder rubbing elbows with sunchokes and a mint pistou. The duck-leg confit, a cooking method that delivers fall-off-the-meat results, played well with potatoes au gratin, while the steak frites starred a robust New York strip with a lush pat of herbed butter capping the meat’s grill marks, along with crunchy, salty fries, of course.
We have to give a shout out to the vegetable of the day—roasted carrots—and the mushrooms of the day—hen of the woods. Both were notable preparations. I hope they’ll be back on the menu soon.
We’re not sure why we’re suckers for a cheese cart. But we are, probably because of the delectable selections you see as it trundles by the table like a pram with a cute baby. We settled on a wedge of full-flavored Camembert, a creamy cow’s milk cheese from Normandy.
If you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, Petit Louis has you covered with exquisite French classics like profiteroles with coffee ice cream and warm chocolate sauce and a lemon tart with toasted meringue. For a nibble, try the bonbons, including a chocolate-salted caramel, hazelnut-praline orange, and cherry Kirsch ganache, all sampled on the night we were there.There’s also Comptoir, a bakery/cafe attached to the main restaurant—a casual, go-to place for sandwiches, pastries, breads, and coffee. Petit Louis on the lake captures what Foreman Wolf does so well: offering stellar food, ambiance, and service to diners. It’s worth a visit wherever you live.