With the fancy food coming out of the kitchen brought out by a wait staff dressed in jeans, Chez Hugo Bistro is a place that straddles the line between the old-school, white-tablecloth notions of high-end French cuisine and the new, more democratic approach to “good” food that characterizes 21st century American restaurants.
During our April visit, the restaurant bridged that gap well. Chez Hugo’s space is pretty, the food is complex and well-executed and our service was smart, if not always timed exactly how we would have liked.
Chez Hugo opened downtown last February. It’s the brainchild of Chef Steve Monnier, the former owner of Arômes, the petite Hampden restaurant that closed last year (Foraged Eatery now occupies the space).
Arômes’ menu was French-influenced, but highly experimental–I once ate a taco there with a milk skin shell (it tasted better than it sounds). The food at Chez Hugo, by contrast, feels more traditionally French, though dishes include enough quirks to keep them from being predictable.
Our meal started with a basket of gougeres: little puffs of air, cheese and pastry created to whet appetites. They did.
Our next dish was a showstopper: a slab of pink foie gras topped with a thin, crispy round of cracker-like bread and garnished with dollops of a sweet, fruity puree. Foie gras is best when its silky, nearly unctuous texture is juxtaposed with its opposites. This iteration, with its crunchy bread and swirls of fruit, provided that contrast. It was extravagant, certainly, but the fruit cut the richness of the foie gras and, as a whole, the dish felt right.
Steak frites isn’t the most adventurous item on the Chez Hugo menu, but it’s a classic the restaurant handles properly, with skinny fries, a nicely cooked steak and a brown sauce amped up with green peppercorn.
Both of the other two entrees we tried impressed us with creativity and execution. Grilled pork collar with bok choy, ramp vinaigrette and a delicate brown sauce, was tender, cooked just to medium rare, and delightful.
Black bass arrived at the table hidden under a pile of crispy kale, shallots and capers; underneath all of that, the plate was dressed with a thick tomato vinaigrette. The fish was cooked beautifully and the accoutrements, though a little haphazard, from a visual standpoint, offered a careful balance of brine and acidity.
Chez Hugo’s wine list is abbreviated but smart. During our visit, our first choice wasn’t available, but we were pleased with the runner-up: the fruity, spicy Moulin a Vent Gamay from Maison l’Envoye in Beaujolais.
We tried several desserts, enjoying a dense rum cake and a thin slice of intense, dark chocolate torte. But the most intriguing dessert was the pavolova: delicate meringue topped with a swirl of sweet-tart rhubarb mousse and garnished with pistachio brittle and a smattering of strawberries. It looked dramatic and was light enough to be a pleasant end to an intense meal.
Chez Hugo’s interior has the kind of continental charm that allows you to imagine you’re in a seventh arrondissement bistro that’s been around for a century or two. The banquettes are gold, the tabletops are marble, and the floor is a mosaic of black, gold and white tiles. It’s charming and feels special.
The staff amplify that feeling, for the most part. During our meal, we primarily interacted with one server and she knew her stuff. She was able to speak to the menu and kept a watchful eye, even from afar, on all of her tables. Other staff members, including a beverage expert and a manager or two, were also gracious and knowledgeable.
The staff seems formally trained, but personable and comfortable. Managers wear suits, but the rest are in denim and, no matter what their attire, the staff is open, friendly and not the least bit snooty. It’s a likable combination.
The one quibble we had with the experience was that the pacing was a bit too slow. The timing might have been intentionally languid; the restaurant was about half-full at its busiest, so it wasn’t a matter of being surprisingly slammed. But for us, somewhere just before dessert, it crossed the line from leisurely to “let’s hurry up a bit.”
The question I’ll be asked most frequently about Chez Hugo is, “But how does it stack up against Petit Louis?” (Petit Louis, to my mind, sets the current standard for French food in Baltimore.)
The answer is: It holds its own. And despite sharing a cuisine, the two restaurants are not identical twins.
Except for some classics that will be permanent fixtures, Chez Hugo’s menu will evolve on a monthly basis, which means the new spot will offer more frequent surprises than Petit Louis. This is not a dig at Petit Louis; its regular menu feels as familiar and loved as a soft baby blanket. Its consistency is part of what makes it so appealing, but the freshness of Chez Hugo’s menu is also exciting.
Another difference: Chez Hugo is pricier. It’s possible, even easy, to rack up a large bill at Petit Louis, but with a handful of lower-priced menu items, like omelets and quiche, it’s realistic to escape with your credit limit intact.
At Chez Hugo, that;s not as easy. The menu is shorter and it’s the less costly items that are missing. Individual dishes aren’t necessarily overpriced; in fact, Chez Hugo’s steak frites is $2 less than Petit Louis’. But there just aren’t as many options.
Ditto on the wine list. Petit Louis known for having an expansive and excellent list. Chez Hugo’s list is much briefer and while we found something that satisfied us, we would’ve liked to see more choices below $50.
That said, Baltimore is better for having Petit Louis and Chez Hugo, and there’s certainly room in town for both.
Chez Hugo Bistro. 206 E. Redwood St., Baltimore, (443) 438-3002, chezhugobistro.com
Final Grade: A-
Bottom Line: After closing his tiny and experimental Hampden restaurant, Arômes, chef Steve Monnier went in a more traditional direction, opening Chez Hugo Bistro in a gorgeous space downtown. With a knowledgeable, friendly staff and creative dishes that show off traditional French techniques (but aren’t beholden to them), it’s a stellar addition to the city’s restaurant scene.