A bit of sunny Provence tucked into a drab strip shopping center on Old Waterloo Road in Elkridge, the brilliant blue and yellow decor of the Rooster Cafe is certain to brighten any day. So is the food.
Chef Mark Schek's cuisine is based on organic, additive-free ingredients and years of experience cooking with some of France's superstars and in Washington's top kitchens. Schek has the restraint to let the quality of his ingredients shine through. The results make it worthwhile to seek out the Rooster Cafe, just four turns off Interstate 95, but still well off the beaten path.
Simplicity is the watchword of both the restaurant and its menu. Roosters, often a motif in French country design, are a recurring theme. The wrought iron chairs would be at home pulled up to a table on a Riviera patio. Jazz (sometimes played a bit too loudly) fills the air. When the room is largely empty, as it was at lunch on a recent day, it feels a bit cold. But add a couple of dozen diners on a Friday night, and the mood becomes lively.
Schek, a Montgomery County native, most recently worked at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill in Washington, but his style seems to reflect that of Lameloise, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Burgundy, where he also worked. Lameloise is famous for exceedingly well-prepared but simple dishes whose ingredients provide the dominant flavors and tastes.
At the Rooster Cafe, the sweet taste of rockfish is not overpowered by its simple lemon vinaigrette sauce.
And the nutty taste of socca, a small pancake made of chickpea flour, isn't overwhelmed by the accompanying salad's dressing or the fresh goat cheese accent.
The lobster bisque, served as a soup special on two occasions recently, tastes intensely of lobster (and, at one meal, a little too much salt), but this is a classic preparation, not one doused with too much rich cream or studded with chunks of lobster meat. Salads of mixed lettuces taste of earthy greens, rather than limp leaves awash in dressing.
It's not really possible to recommend specific dishes, because Schek tweaks them as the seasons and availability of foods change. In the winter months, the socca was served with melted mozzarella. There also was venison, rich but not too gamy. Some preparation of free-range chicken, a salmon dish and a hearty rib-eye steak, which reminds you of what beef tasted like before breeding cattle became a corporate activity, are usually among the four or five main courses each evening.
Small missteps may happen, but this is always very personal cooking. The bread is homemade, and all the dishes are cooked to order by Schek, the kitchen's only maestro. It may take a few minutes longer for each course to arrive, but the individual care is evident.
Schek's experience as a pastry chef with Washington chef Yannick Cam is evident in the Rooster Cafe's desserts, which have included a raspberry parfait and creme Catalan, similar to creme brulee.
My favorite is the chocolate tart, with a deep chocolate taste that isn't too sweet. Served warm, it melts in your mouth.
The wine list, mostly French, is select and reasonably priced, with most bottles in the $30 to $40 range.
More than three decades ago, chef Alice Waters started an American food revolution at her now legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., with a similar approach to offering organic and specially grown ingredients.
The revolution lives on in this Elkridge shopping plaza.
Rooster Cafe, 6590 Old Waterloo Rd., Elkridge, 443-755-0832. www.theroostercafe.com. Appetizers at lunch, $4.50; main courses at lunch, $7-$10. Appetizers at dinner, $5.50-$8; main courses at dinner, $18.95-$21.95; dessert at lunch and dinner, $4.50. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Accessible to disabled individuals.
If you have a food-related event or favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at email@example.com.