- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Simplicity in French food with an American flair best describes the Rooster Cafe. It’s ever-changing, depends on what is fresh and available each day.

Hidden in a small space of the Lark Brown Center shopping plaza near Columbia, Md., the Rooster Cafe has received much praise.

Chef and co-owner Mark Schek, a Montgomery County native, has an impressive culinary background that includes restaurant stints in the District, New York City and Europe.

Rooster art is something else to crow about at this cafe. Pieces collected by Mr. Schek and his wife adorn the blue and yellow painted walls.

Ben, the young maitre d’, proudly informed us that his uncle is the chef. He told us that Mr. Schek, on just about a daily basis, gets up at the crack of dawn, gets in his car and makes a trip to his favorite markets, where he selects meats, seafood, produce and fruit for that day’s menu. The courses change daily, depending on what’s available.

A one-sheet menu consists of five appetizers, seven entrees and three desserts. You can order a la carte from the list, or order any appetizer, entree and dessert, including coffee, for a prix fixe of $36.

There is a limited wine list available by the bottle or glass.

Once seated, extra-crusty mini loaves of warm French bread arrive at the table. They are made daily by the chef and are wonderful with a dab of butter.

Clear standouts among first courses were the white truffle risotto ($6.95); pate de maison ($5.75); and the sauteed scallops ($7.50).

The risotto was creamy and rich, and was a perfect showcase for the subtle yet pungent flavor of white truffle. The only drawback: those who don’t appreciate rich foods may find this a bit too much without something for balance.

Pate was prepared with foie gras, pork, sausage and spices, served with a cherry vinaigrette and a green salad.

The pate was bursting with flavor and texture, and was much meatier and lighter on the liver than many pates. The crisp greens and cherry vinaigrette provided a nice contrast of texture and tartness.

The scallops were garnished with a spinach salad and roasted red peppers. The scallops were prepared gently, almost rare, and showed true skill in the kitchen. The spinach was as big a hit as the scallops, again providing the perfect contrast in taste, texture and temperature.

Notable main plates include the halibut ($24.95), which is pan-roasted then placed in a bowl atop a julienne of root vegetables and a mushroom broth. The white flaky fish was nicely cooked, and along with the broth and parsnips was a delight. The dish would have been perfection with a few more vegetables.

Rack and shank of lamb ($25.95) is roasted with Kalamanta olives and served with polenta, asparagus and lamb sauce. The lamb was tender and flavorful, with a nice crust on the outside and medium rare on the inside. What made this dish stand out from the many good lamb preparations available today was what accompanied it.

The polenta was not too fine, so you could appreciate the texture, yet was wonderfully soft and substantial. The subtle corn flavor came through nicely. As a perfect contrast, the crisp, tender asparagus spears, cut in smaller bite-size pieces rather than served whole, added crunch and a real defined flavor.

Duck breast ($22.95) was served with a wild rice and orange and peach sauce. The duck also had a flavorful crust on the outside, which played off the very tender, pink meat inside. The sweetness of the sauce worked well with the earthiness of the wild rice and the duck.

A sirloin steak with wild mushrooms and penne pasta with grain-mustard sauce; free-range chicken with a thin potato galette and thyme; and an Australian sea bass with potato pancakes and sauteed spinach were also on the menu.

Dessert offerings were a Cointreau souffle ($7.50), panna cotta ($4.75) and chocolate cake ($5.25). The souffle was light and fluffy, with the subtle flavor of Cointreau shining through. It was served fresh from the oven and piping hot.

The panna cotta — cooked cream — was smooth and velvety, and nicely chilled. The berry topping provided just the right touch of tartness and sweetness.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Mr. Schek worked in the New York kitchens of the Regency Hotel and Le Perigord. In Washington, he was at Le Pavillion and Provence, and prior to opening Rooster Cafe, he did a stint at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill.

Rooster Cafe is quaint and only seats 34, so reservations are recommended.

RESTAURANT: Rooster Cafe, 6590 Old Waterloo Road in Howard County, southeast of Columbia; 443/755-0600

HOURS: Dinner, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

PRICES: Soups and salads, $5 to $5.25; appetizers, $5.75 to $7.50; entrees, $18.95 to $25.95; prix fixe three courses, $36; desserts $4.75 to $7.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: On-site

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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