Where to find somewhat traditional French food in Baltimore? It's a perpetual question with a few easy answers (Petit Louis and Marie-Louise Bistro, to name two), but not many choices. The latest attempt to fill the gap is La Folie Wine Bar & Steak Frites (2903 O'Donnell St.,  212-2112, bistrolafolie.com), Bill Irwin's new bistro in the heart of Canton.
If you're looking for a certain kind of French experience that embodies classic technique or chic elegance, this isn't it. The restaurant, last home to the Tavern on the Square, still offers outdoor seating and opens its doors onto O'Donnell Street, where motorcycles growl and sputter as they pass and chatty foot traffic parades throughout the night. But the interior—sunny yellow walls with red and black accents—with a coq gaulois, the rooster that is one of the national symbols of France, and a requisite vintage poster advertising Mémetrel escargots does its best to evoke casual French bistro style. Butcher paper covers tables. Televisions hang above the bar, which is building a reputation for "frosé" and other frozen wine concoctions. It's sort of reminiscent of the corner joints you find in Paris—the ones often found near a busy Metro stop and are not particularly touristy. Like them, La Folie eschews any particularly grand aspirations in favor of familiar food and a comfortable and entirely unpretentious experience.
This starts with the menu, which is very small. It's a sensible move, I think, when so many kitchens overextend themselves by trying to do too much and end up doing nothing well. La Folie, in contrast, lives up to its name by making protein-plus-frites entrees (steak, salmon, chicken, Portobello mushroom, mussels, and burger) its raison d'etre, along with five hors d'oeuvres and three salads. All the frites dishes, save the mussels and burger, come with a choice of a market-fresh green salad lightly dressed with vinaigrette, or soup—on the night we dined, a mousse-like swirl of creamy, pale yellow summer squash, saved from being overly rich by a dash of mustard and a garnish of chives. (The kitchen also produces a traditional-style onion soup a la carte ($9) which could use a slightly richer broth to make it more memorable.)
Entrees are solid, prepared in a straightforward manner with few surprises. Best was the steak frites ($24), a chewy but still tender coulotte steak cooked sous vide and finished on the grill. The roasted chicken breast ($20) was underseasoned and vaguely sweet as a result of a garnish of compound butter infused with Meyer lemon. Diners can choose one or two four ounce beef or turkey patties ($8 for one; $12 for two) heaped with fried onions and a mild garlic aioli to suit their burger needs. Our server reported that the kitchen served them medium to medium well done because of their size, but promised that the meat was still juicy. It was, but the choice of a less done burger would be welcome. A large pot of mussels ($12 for a half serving; $18 for a full) served Provençal style with nuggets of lamb sausage, onions, lemon, tomatoes, and fennel smelled heavenly and lived up to its promise. As for the frites, well, I'm never one to say no to a pile of fried potatoes on my plate. These were thin and crispy and as addictive as any you'll find. I just wish they had come to the table hotter.
The inclusion of soup and salad with an entrée is an economical offering, and if you go this route, you really won't need much more food. That said, you could also mix-and-match a meal by pairing, say, an order of escargots or country paté with a salade Lyonnaise or Niçoise. If you like mushrooms, however, order the mushroom crisps ($9), a hot dish of garlicky creamed mushrooms served with toasts and a side of apple butter. The mushrooms are lovely, and the portion is generous enough that you can save some to eat with your burger or steak, but the pairing with apple butter is odd. Although the staff raved about the sweet and savory combination, everyone at my table preferred the toasts without the apple butter.
Overall, La Folie offers easy pleasures. Service throughout the evening was warm without being cloying, with servers checking in at appropriate times and making menu suggestions. Beer prices feel like a bargain with $4 cans and bottles from big label producers and $5 drafts from a few local breweries and larger small craft producers like Goose Island. Wines are tout français, cover a wide range of regions from the Loire Valley to the Languedoc to Burgundy, and are super reasonable by the bottle. Ask for a recommendation, order up some frites, and take in the ever-changing traffic of the square.
La Folie Wine Bar & Steak Frites is open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday and lunch Saturday-Sunday.