When you're lining up fans of the local-seasonal trend in restaurants, I'm among those jostling to be up front. I count time by when strawberries of late spring give way to the peas of early summer to the tomatoes of July, and to me, the experience of a seasonal menu holds a real sense of anticipation (and not a little gastronomic joy). As a reviewer, though, it can have its challenges.
For instance, I want to tell you about the soft shell crab ($19 for one) at Colette (1709 N. Charles St.,  835-2945, colettebaltimore.com), the Station North restaurant that opened earlier this year. Crisped in a light batter, the crab sits on a bed of brilliant green Romano beans, those long flat cousins of the string bean sometimes called Italian flat beans. Small wedges of yellow tomatoes tossed into the mix glow like neon against the beans, and the whole gorgeous plate is a medley of flavors and textures—at once crunchy and delicate, sweet and snappy. I want to recommend strongly that you order the soft shell crab, but depending on when you're reading this or the whim of the market or nature or the chef, it might not be available. The same goes for the ethereal fried squash blossoms, plumped with a delicate scallop mousseline filling ($16). They, too, can be fleeting, so order them while they're available. See my dilemma? A delicious one, to be sure, but still.
Colette is the brainchild of Adrien Aeschilman, who also owns the lovely Bottega, just one block away. Colette hews to much of the same aesthetic, down to the snug, narrow dining room (this time painted billiard green) and the visible shelving and storage (chairs hang overhead from a shelf suspended from the ceiling). Unlike Bottega, however, Colette operates with a liquor license in its front-of-the-house bar and offers an impressive cocktail list heavy on classics, some you might have heard of—a Sazerac ($10), a Cuban-style Old Fashioned made with rum ($9)—and some maybe not, like the gin concoction known as the Bee's Knees ($8). The menu lists each cocktail's year and place of origin, and nestled among the familiar are a few creative newbies from the house, like the super-refreshing Sir Barton ($10), made with the Baltimore Whiskey Company's Shot Tower Gin, lime juice, mint, and cucumber bitters and the light-as-air Vive L'Aperitif ($9), a fragrant, but not too sweet combo of Lillet Blanc, sparkling wine, grapefruit juice, and St. Germain. Beers hew local, but not exclusively so, and the small, smart wine list sticks to the Old World, with France as the leading player.
Colette is marketed as French-inspired, and this feels apt. Many menu items nod to bistro classics, including small plate orders of Gruyere-flecked beignets ($9); duck rillettes ($11) and potted duck liver ($12); and classic steak tartare ($16), bright pink and mixed with flecks of preserved egg yolk and horseradish that give the beef a subtle umami-like depth.
Chef Stefano Porcile seems particularly adept with elevating the simple to an even better version of itself (see soft shell crabs, above). A grilled zucchini plate ($13) looks rather run-of-the-mill, but the small chunks of zucchini are perfectly cooked—almost al dente—with a summery accompaniment of whipped ricotta and marinated tomatoes. For an entrée, Porcile deconstructs chicken ($24), first air drying the breast before giving it a good pan sear, then shredding some of the dark meat to add (along with a few croutons and some devilishly good smashed fingerling potatoes) to a green salad dressed with the chicken's pan juices. Simple, right? But that simplicity yields a savory richness. Luckily, this dish has become a menu staple, and I look forward to ordering it again.
We had sweet, smart service the night we dined. Our server offered solid suggestions, explanations of dishes, and just the right amount of enthusiasm. She recommended the quail small plate ($20) over the duck breast entrée ($28), and when we chose the latter anyway, she let us know that peaches (seared until the edges are crisp and slightly blackened) would replace sweet potatoes as the accompaniment. She also checked back to ask specifically about the dish and let us know that the kitchen was still tinkering with additions to the plate, which also included mustard greens (some Israeli couscous maybe?).
I like that kind of straightforwardness, and our server's direction on desserts also proved apt. A country-style rhubarb hazelnut galette ($12) was generous enough to share and could have come from your favorite home chef's oven. In contrast, milk and honey pot de crème ($8) felt slightly exotic with its floral, lavender-infused custard topped with a layer of clear gelée.
It's always a little surprising that there are so few French restaurants in Baltimore, and while Colette isn't trying to replicate a classic bistro, the esprit is there. Try the front bar for a pre- or post-Charles Theatre cocktail, or head to the back to share a bottle of wine and the bounty of the season.
Colette is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday and brunch on Sunday.