Some restaurants take a visit or two to earn your favor. Flamant, fronted with a stone walkway and a semicircle of Adirondack chairs, beguiles me even before the door swings open and a radiant hostess in pigtails ushers my party inside.
En route from parked car to packed dining room, we watch a young cook collecting herbs from a garden that hugs the side of a bungalow-style building that merits a spread in “Coastal Living.” Inside, the trim, sun-dappled front room (bring sunglasses) suggests a neighborhood draw in . . . Brussels, maybe?
Try again. Annapolis might not be your second guess, or even you’re 50th, but Maryland’s capital is where you’ll find Flamant and Frederik De Pue, the chef behind Table in Shaw and Menu MBK in Penn Quarter, both now closed. In contrast to Washington, where he endured legal battles (since settled) with his business partners, the Belgian native, 41, says he likes the neighborhood vibe in West Annapolis, where a lot of his audience knows one another by name. (Judging by all the handshakes and hugs I’ve observed, De Pue is right.) Even if you’re not a local, you’re likely to be treated as a friend of the house by the staff, who keep some enviable hours for their industry. The restaurant is open just five nights a week and doesn’t do brunch.
To pass on a snack is to miss some of De Pue’s wit. One of the more novel ideas is a spread of escargots pureed with tarragon, spinach, Parmesan rinds and garlic into a smooth green dip glossed with olive oil. The combination is luscious and all the better for the bread “soldiers,” stacked nearby. Sliced from a loaf of bread speckled with “everything bagel” accents, then baked, the crisp golden wands make a stirring contribution. Where other kitchens are content serving crab cakes, this one stuffs blue crab and chives into fragile brik pastry and rolls them into edible cigars. Served piping hot, the crackling snack is cooled by a little pot of cocktail sauce, Belgian-style: ketchup, mayonnaise and gin (“for a kick,” says the chef).
Pastry turns out to be a harbinger of good taste at Flamant, whose appetizers include a duck confit set on a wafery crust hovering over an eggplant puree swirled with yogurt and sparked with capers. Lots of goodness there. The duck leg juts out of its little pot like a spear, its richness countered with tangy tomatoes.
Maybe you want something to combat summer’s heat. De Pue practically mops our brows with a gazpacho of a different color. Grass-green with spinach and cream, the soup is fancifully rethought with tender little mussels and a curry “crumble.” As liquid salads go, this one is beautiful and cooling.
A small kitchen, framed as if it were a postcard subject by a large open window, explains the short menu, a mere half-dozen main courses. Even so, the choices cover a lot of bases. The steak lover will be more than pleased by a fist of dry-aged beef tenderloin capped with a marrow crust and presented with crusty potato croquettes and pared turnips. The fish fan might gravitate toward grilled arctic char poised atop a bed of bright peas, snow peas and sunny creamed corn. While the list changes to reflect what’s best in the market, a vegetarian option in early July delivered a chunk of grilled broccoli on a pool of Parmesan sauce. Grated black lime, a staple in the Middle East, lent its agreeable tang to the forest.
In memory of the time he cooked in Monte Carlo under the revered Alain Ducasse, De Pue offers a braised veal shank (for two), a cut of meat that’s cooked low and slow with pineapple sage, shallots and veal stock, all of which contribute to some of the most magnificent eating in Annapolis. A server trots out the feast, gilded with bone marrow potatoes and a heady reduction, for inspection before whisking it back to the kitchen to be carved. Blessed is the dog that snags the leftovers.
The upbeat crowd, the cozy environs — even a bottle of Foley Estates’ pinot noir, smelling of violets and smacking of cranberries, cherries and thyme — can’t mask a few disappointments.
The appetizer that doesn’t belong in this company, grilled romaine lettuce, gives me the opportunity to say I’m not a fan of most grilled lettuces. Artichoke chips and saffron broth try, but fail, to give the dish thrust. And the only reason to order the tarragon chicken, sidelined by a flabby beer batter, is the opportunity to see why Belgium is praised for its double-cooked (not French!) fries.
Desserts show flair. A little black pot contains a crepe, boozy with kirschwasser, cool with verbena gelato and folded over peaches, a tip of the hat to the children’s clothing store, Giant Peach, that preceded the restaurant. Thinly sliced pineapple is presented as bruleed “ravioli” stretching over coconut pastry cream. Flamant also makes a luxe candy bar from peanuts, caramel and, this being Belgian-inspired, chocolate from De Pue’s homeland.
Engaging food isn’t the only reason you want to reserve a table well in advance of a visit. Flamant is just 40 seats spread across three dining areas, each with its own charm. While the front is my first choice, the center room comes with tall tables and a bar and the rear features a window, this one glass, that captures the bustle of the kitchen (but not its noise or heat).
De Pue has a good eye for design, dressing his rooms with papier-mâché animal heads from Haiti and handsome plywood lights crafted by a cousin from back home. Of greater significance, the chef is putting out the kind of food capable of attracting just about anyone, from just about anywhere. If any of his efforts ever called for a road trip, Flamant is it.
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17 Annapolis St., Annapolis.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $14 to $18, main courses $25 to $38.
Sound check: 84 decibels / Extremely loud.