ON A LATE WINTER’S NIGHT at Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park, an army of flame-licked All-Clad and Bourgeat pots and skillets are lined up as Chris Scanga gives verbal commands to the line cooks and two sous chefs working swiftly to fill orders across three ranges, a gas grill, and deep fryer.
Mussels get sautéed with garlic and herb butter. An omelet is filled with roasted tomatoes. Scallops are seared, then paired with poached lobster in cream sauce. Matchstick frites get dropped in the fryer. Crocks of onion soup are capped with inch-thick slices of gruyère, then placed in the 650-degree Vulcan oven for maximum melting.
“Pick up: one scallops, two trout, one quiche. Order pick up: Un cassoulet, por favor,” he calls out to his mostly Spanish speaking staff. “Order up: Steak frites, well-done.” He juggles the onslaught with complete calm, as servers, runners, and the maître d’hotel bustle around him. Scanga takes his role of executive chef at Petit Louis, a position he has held for six years, seriously. “It’s a responsibility working here at a place that people consider an institution,” he says. “People will say ‘that’s the best onion soup I’ve ever had,’ or ‘that’s the best meal I’ve ever had’—that’s the reason I do it.”
This was the scene in the second week of March, which is to say what feels like a million years ago, before the coronavirus arrived—only four days later to be exact—and shut down the restaurant for 10 weeks before it reopened for carryout, and, eventually, patio and limited-capacity dining.
And while the reopening has brought along with it the new staples of contemporary dining—temperature checks, contact tracing forms, masks (blue, white, and red-striped for the servers), and an en plein air tented patio—its essence as a beloved bastion endures.
“One of the things that [co-owners] Tony [Foreman] and Cindy [Wolf] both deserve credit for is the way they’ve served during the pandemic,” says Roland Park resident and customer of 20 years Peter Bain, who frequents the restaurant so often that he can recite the nightly plat du jour and seasonal specials. “They’ve worked really hard to take care of their people and take care of their patrons. They’ve been very creative about setting up outside dining and takeout orders, and they’ve jumped through so many hoops to continue to be creative during this period—it’s one thing to be great under normal conditions, it’s another thing to be great in crisis conditions. They’re proving again that they’ve redefined standards and raised the bar for dining in Baltimore—and they’ve been doing that for decades.”
But on a 1998 trip to Paris, Wolf had a change of heart. The duo wandered into Chez Louis L’Ami for a meal at the proper French bistro founded in 1924 on a little side street in the 3rd arrondissement of the Northern Marais district. A meal of foie gras terrine, a stack of warm toast, and a bottle of Sauternes showed them the epitome of what food could aspire to be. “Ahhhh,” recalls Wolf, looking starry-eyed at the memory. “It was the most decadent thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe how opulent it was—it was so exciting. And for me as a chef, getting to see this 1920s bistro, it felt very, very old, and authentic.”
Wolf’s enchantment with the bistro had been Foreman’s plan all along. “I’d been trying to figure out how to do it, and it made it a whole lot easier to convince her with a glass of Sauternes and a little stack of foie gras terrine slices and the warm toast,” says Foreman, laughing. “You’ve got to know your audience when you’re selling something.”
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