French food has fallen out of favor in popular culinary circles in the past decade. Beef bourguignon has given way to Korean pork tacos, white-clothed fine dining to paper napkins and food trucks. The hard-held belief that French food is tedious, fattening, and exclusively for the well-off has a lot to do with its fall from grace. It's a shame that French food has this stigma because real French cuisine is fresh, seasonal, and perpetually changing to keep up with modern tastes. This is the style of unassuming French fare that Le Garage in Hampden (911 W. 36th St.,  243-6300) trades in.
Located in the subterranean basement where the Dogwood Restaurant used to reside, Le Garage bills itself as a "beer bar and frites" establishment, but on a recent visit there we found it to be much more.
The space is sleek and modern, with a giant bookcase dividing the bar and the dining room. One might say it had a very New York look, but modern is really nothing new to Baltimore and, when matched with charmingly mismatched silverware, quirky but well-designed menus, and decorative accents like box cameras or birdcages, the place feels pure Baltimore.
Starting with easy decisions, we ordered a Brewer's Art La Petroleuse ($6), Stillwater Artisanal Ales As Follows ($6), and the frites ($4.50). La Petroleuse was a big and flavorful biere de garde that was also very drinkable. The As Follows was a strong Belgian pale ale that had the signature farmhouse and saison notes that are common among their creations. Both beers are great for spring and they both went incredibly well with the frites.
As for those frites, what can we say that isn't just a series of obscene onomatopoeia describing the sounds we made while devouring what are easily the best frites in town? Soft and fluffy potato flesh was caged in a twice-fried golden crust, liberally salted and served with a side sauce chosen from a list of ten options. We went with the kimchi ketchup, which was bright, sweet, citrus-y, and spicy. We ordered a second sauce ($.75), a thick rosemary garlic mayo that showed off the potato without blowing it out. We dreamed about those frites.
The appetizers and tartines (open-faced sandwiches) on Chef Sarah Acconcia's menu seemed much bolder than the entrées so we went heavier on them, with great results. Chilled asparagus soup ($7) was very much spring in a bowl. Chives gave it some backbone while crème fraiche lent a creaminess that toned down the fresh asparagus' bitter notes.
Grapefruit-cured fluke ($12) was beautifully presented like a small pile of translucent jewels, with pickled cucumber and shallot used as pale complementing colors but also as unifying flavor components. By itself, the fluke was quite salty, but when paired with the cucumber and the pickled shallot it became a fantastic bite of food. We asked for extra shallots so every piece of fluke had a pickled friend to meet its fate with.
Not all of the dishes were successful. The fava bean dip with curried cauliflower tartine ($9) was bland. None of the components stood apart from each other. The toast, mashed fava beans, and curried cauliflower all merged into one boring mouthful. A tweak here and there could make this dish better but as it stood, it was more colorful than flavorful.
The roasted marrow bones ($9), also served with toast, came out much better. This dish is currently en vogue among local chefs and the version served at Le Garage is better than all of them. Two giant bones filled with wonderfully gelatinous marrow were topped with a charred-crisp mushroom and oxtail jam and served with a parsley salad and a condiment of pickled mustard seeds. When combined on the toast they tasted like the most luxurious hamburger you've ever had, with the meat jam giving it an umami blast.
An entrée of monkfish schnitzel ($18) was a fun play on an Alsatian classic. A thick and meaty monkfish fillet is breaded and fried crunchy on the outside and served with fingerling potato and a piquant mixture of cabbage, capers, and onion that mimicked sauerkraut. Everything worked well together and the chunky monkfish was cooked to an excellent firmness.
Stuffed from our meal, dessert was almost out of the question until our server explained that the croissant bread pudding ($8) was a must try. Much lighter than it sounded, the bread pudding was served in a mini cast-iron dish, giving the bottom lots of crunch. The excellent croissant was topped with Taharka Brothers cinnamon ice cream and glazed with caramel sauce. We never even gave it a chance to get cool.
Le Garage is a knockout of a restaurant, both visually and conceptually, and the word is out. The Wednesday night we visited, we ate dinner at the bar because we didn't get a reservation in time and they were booked solid. So be sure to call early and don't worry too much if you're unable to reserve a table: They have a frites take-out shop on the first floor, so at least you will be comforted with some amazing fries for your effort.
Le Garage is open Sunday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to midnight, with a late-night menu after 11 p.m. Open Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., with a late-night menu available after 11 p.m.