French Kitchen

After an inexplicable 45-minute wait for starters, our meal at the French Kitchen (20 W. Baltimore St., [410] 539-8400, had crossed into "comically bad" territory. It was a Friday night, we were but a small table for two, and the long, high-ceilinged dining room hosted perhaps 25 diners in total. Two servers, clad in black-and-white uniforms, manned the floor and were aided by a manager as well as a busboy. Having waited tables ourselves, we tried to puzzle out the holdup: Could there be an onslaught of room-service orders the kitchen needs to fulfill? Is there a large crowd at the LB Tavern, the adjacent bar? Had no one prepped the kitchen? It wasn't clear.

We arrived at 8 p.m. without reservations for the restaurant located inside the recently overhauled Lord Baltimore Hotel. Though there's no designated host station, the kindly busboy happened upon us and seated us immediately. We were charmed when he told us the soup du jour-cream of white asparagus-and explained that the asparagus used in it are grown in the dark so as to prevent them from photosynthesizing and developing color.

We rather wished he had been our server when the waiter came over and, when asked if they had beer, responded, "We pretty much have everything in domestics," without listing a single brand. We ordered a Sam Adams seasonal draft ($6) and a delicious Malbec ($9). No complaints there, though the drinks did provide a telling observation of the French Kitchen: The wine and beer glasses were thoroughly generic, something you might pick up at IKEA, a far cry from what you see at the likes of Cunningham's, Petit Louis, or even a BYOB like Bottega. The lack of thought applied to aesthetics seems somewhat odd in this restaurant-touted as having been inspired by Matisse in its bold yellow-and-blue color scheme and fanciful plating strategy. Instead, the overall look of the dining room ultimately resembles a poor man's Versailles, with lofty walls covered in many-paned window frames filled with mirrors.

We ordered ambitiously for two, choosing cured salmon, steak tartare, and the white asparagus soup as hors d'oeuvres, and beef bourguignon and fish for entrees. Given our first-course selections-already-prepared salmon, raw beef, and soup-we would have been surprised to wait even 10 or 15 minutes.

Around 25 minutes in, the manager brought bread. The rosemary-infused bread had been baked well, with a thick, crispy crust. The cold butter was impossible to spread. The five olives (four small, pitted ones; one large one) brought with the butter made little impression then, but as time wore on and no one cleared away the quickly devoured bread basket or butter-and-olive dish, the image of a single olive pit seared itself on our brain.

The salmon ($13) arrived alone, around 8:45 p.m., as if it were a concession from our server. Hungry though we were, the dish was a disappointing sight: five finger-sized slices of salmon with a few purple pickled onions and fennel sprigs scattered on top, and a scant two or three white droplets that we construed as crème fraiche, plus a rectangular, wafer-thin sesame- and poppy-seed-crusted crisp. The salmon was tasty enough, briny and chewy and tender, but the brown skin on the underside hadn't been removed. Nonetheless, we gobbled it up in five minutes.

Then we waited more. Someone cleared the salmon dish (but not the plate with the olive pit), never acknowledging that we had been there almost an hour and had still not completed our first course.

At 9:05 p.m., the soup and the steak tartare came out. The soup ($8) was poured out tableside into a bowl with three or four small flowers in it; the texture was smooth and thin, and the flavor very tasty-almost like a super-delicate white-cheddar sauce. The yellow florets looked nice in the bowl but didn't contribute any flavor and, when chewed, possessed a mushiness we could have done without. The tartare ($14), a circular butte on the plate topped with an egg yolk, was dotted with mustard seeds and capers, but we could find no flavor in it: no sweetness, no tang, no salt, no meatiness. When spread on crostini, all one tasted was crostini. We didn't finish the dish.

After the plates were cleared away (still not the olive pit!), we sat, staring at each other in disbelief that we were again waiting-and that, still, no one had uttered a word of explanation or apology. Our waiter paused at our table to see if we wanted another glass of wine, and we flatly declined. At that point, eye-contact avoidance set in. The manager swiveled around our table, the server's eyes darted away from us as he walked about the room. A gentleman from another table got up and hailed the manager, and we overheard him demanding a glass of wine he had asked for an hour ago. At 9:30 p.m., we flagged down the manager and asked how much longer it would be for our entrees.

Five minutes later, he reappeared from the kitchen carrying beef bourguignon ($19) and Arctic char ($28). The dishes were slightly warmer than room temperature.

We didn't stick around for the rest of our meal at the French Kitchen, having lost our appetite. What we sampled of the char and the beef indicated it was too salty and overcooked (perhaps due to the time spent under a heat lamp). The manager offered to give us the lamb dish ($31) on the house as recompense for the lukewarm food, but we didn't want to prolong our time there. To the manager's credit, we only paid for our drinks in the end. In the landscape of our dining experiences in Baltimore, the French Kitchen will loom above the rest, like the Tour Montparnasse skyscraper in Paris, for all of its undesirable qualities.

The French Kitchen is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, for dinner from 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and is closed Sunday and Monday.

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