When I was a teenager growing up in Brussels, I had a routine on my way to a Wednesday, after school ballet class. For about 80 francs ($2), I'd order a massive sandwich from a bistro with a take-out window near Rue de Boucher, prop myself on some nearby steps, wolf down the food while people-watching, and then move on for my two-hours of plies and jetes.
Leaving aside the health implications of consuming a huge amount of food before exercising—this marches lockstep in weirdness with the two Mounds Bars and Dr. Pepper I'd buy from our American Department of Defense High School snack bar before track or cross country practice the other four days of the week; when you're 16 and weigh 85 pounds, you can do this, apparently—I was in love with this particular sandwich that I had never tasted in the first 12 years of my army-brat life stateside.
Called filet Americaine, the sandwich consisted of about a half pound of raw ground beef mixed with a raw egg yolk, capers, and onion that was packed onto a crispy fresh baguette. For some reason, I was always hungry as a teen—not like, poverty-and-not-enough-to-eat hungry, more like growing-girl hungry and this was the best thing I'd ever tasted.
I would eat it bathed in the scent of broiled meat that wafted out from Rue de Boucher—which means street of butchers, but which was in fact narrow alleys full of street vendors and restaurants which were a shrine to the national dishes, steak frites and moules frites.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, every once in a while I like to summon up my lost youth and get a craving for what is more commonly called steak tartare. It's not easy to find here in the U.S.—thanks to the Mad Cow scare and fears of Salmonella—but Mount Vernon's Marie Louise Bistro offers up an exquisite version.
Although many plates in upscale restaurants arrive with the raw egg yolk on top and the other ingredients on the side for customers to mix themselves, Marie Louise's version is a premixed steak tartare a la moutarde starter that arrives as a cake of finely chopped beef tenderloin with capers, cornichons, shallots and a pommery sauce for a reasonable $13. Toast arrives with the platter but I find the steak tastes better with the softer house made baguette slices that sit in a basket in the middle of the table. Heaped onto the bread, the steak tartare has a tangy bite that is subtle enough to allow the beef flavor to shine through.
In my book, steak frites cooked rare ($26) is a perfect entrée to follow up steak tartare—and my New York strip steak was cooked exactly as I requested and the accompanying shoestring fries were a thin and crispy complement—but I realize not everyone wants raw beef and then slightly less raw beef for a meal.
My dining partner opted for the escargot appetizer ($12) and duck confit entrée ($22). Traditionally, escargot is baked simply with butter, garlic, herbs, and parsley, but Marie Louise Bistro serves the dish with mushrooms and a demi-glace that, in its heavy woodsy flavor, slightly overwhelmed the snails (as if the chef were fearful of letting the full flavor of the escargots loose on squeamish American diners).
The duck confit arrived as a moulard duck leg nestled in seasoned zucchini and roasted potato with a smoky flavor that was balanced by the simple vegetable accompaniment. While duck can easily dry out in the cooking, this was tender and rich.
Lunchtime visitors in search of something lighter have options ranging from salads to sandwiches such as Croque Madame with ham, gruyere, and mornay sauce ($13) or Formage Grille ($14), with flank steak, gruyere, and cheddar with pickled red onion (all sandwiches come with a generous portion of pommes frites). The salad nicoise ($15) is a generous bowl of lettuce leaves layered with saffron potatoes, green beans, nicoise olives, tomato, and grilled ahi tuna. The tuna, just as I asked, was seared on the outside but pink and tender inside.
Because of my quasi-Belgian heritage, I like beer with my food and the list is scant—though the restaurant offers some favorite local options such as Union Duckpin Ale ($6)--and the wine list, which I'm guessing most people opt for at this French bistro, is extensive.
The restaurant itself has a charming lack of pretension. The tables are draped in white butcher block paper and, in the main room, flank a long patisserie counter. (There is also mezzanine-level seating and outdoor tables on the Charles Street sidewalk.) Tin ceilings, and a few impressionist-style paintings on the wall make this a pleasant throwback in an era of hyper-designed interiors and signals to customers—like my favorite Belgian restaurants—that the experience here is all about the food. Nobody comes here to see or be seen.
So don't come here with the out-of-town guests you are trying to impress with Baltimore's trendy, upscale farm-to-table fusion cuisine food scene; come here with your family or closest friends who crave a genuine French meal and revel in the neighborhood bistro vibe.
Marie Louise Bistro at 904 N. Charles St. is open Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.