Unpretentious Classics and Understated Elegance Make This a Welcome Addition to Hagerstown’s Restaurant Scene.
By April Bartel and photos by Turner Photography Studio
Serial entrepreneur Stuart Kelman is back for seconds, or maybe it’s thirds and fourths. After 30 years as a restaurant owner, Kelman, along with his wife and partner Victoria Willey, opened Bistro 11 on Route 11/Pennsylvania Avenue at the end of August. Tucked into the Fountainhead Plaza in the north end of Hagerstown, the place offers ample parking, a spacious patio, and a comfortable vibe that patrons describe as understated elegance, “like restaurants in Manhattan’s theater district.” It’s the type of place that accommodates mimosa brunches and casual lunches or date night dinners with equal aplomb. In better weather, it’s even within walking distance of Fountainhead Country Club and Golf Course.
Fans of Kelman and Willey’s previous success, Le Parc Bistro in Frederick, will be happy to find some of their favorites reimagined here, along with an extensive menu of continental classics and globally influenced recipes for wide-ranging appeal. There is savory gulf shrimp étouffée listed along with Goose Island IPA beer battered fish and chips using Atlantic haddock, or roasted rack of lamb and a trendy cauliflower steak decked with peppery Spanish-style romesco sauce, artichokes, sundried tomatoes, and salty kalamata olives.
“We incorporate a huge variety of dishes from around the world,” says Kelman, giving creative credit to Executive Chef, José Delgado. “I have good ideas. He has great ideas.” The pair worked together at Le Parc, too. When that lease ran out, Kelman moved their operation closer to home.
“We’ve known each other for probably 15 years. We’ve been friends for a long time, so we have a good relationship and I trust him.” He jokes that they find common ground in doing research. “We both like to eat and try different restaurants. Then we come up with our own creations.”
The menu is woven with French classics that show off years of practiced technique, like Delgado’s take on cassoulet. Traditionally, it’s somewhere between a meaty, slow-simmered stew and a casserole. Here, it is a rich, brothy base loaded with pork shoulder, tender chicken (in place of traditional duck confit), juicy smoked sausages and applewood bacon. It is hearty and comforting, with creamy cannellini beans, bright carrots, and topped with savory herbed breadcrumbs to warm the soul on a cold night. There’s also baked escargot, ahi tuna niçoise salad, or sweetly lacquered duck breast l’orange served with butternut squash and sage risotto.
We tried the Flounder Française, finding it incredibly delicate, covered in a thin, eggy batter that is seared to golden brown. Each serving is two generous filets dressed with buttery sauce that is kissed with lemon and a scattering of salty capers. They are paired with ivory pearls of Israeli couscous and well-seasoned broccoli that finds the sweet spot between crunchy and soggy.
When asked, Kelman takes a while to ponder which dish on the extensive menu would be his favorite before finally calling it a draw between the consistently popular Steak Frites and bucatini carbonara. The former speaks to America’s own love affair with the “meat and potatoes” dinner. It is char-crusted Angus sirloin served with a melting knob of herb butter and a side of crispy shoestring fries to dip in house-made ketchup.
“(The ketchup) has slightly different spices,” says Kelman. “It’s made from scratch and it’s a very good complement to the dish.” He takes pride in that attention to detail, noting, “Everything is pretty much made in-house. Everything is cooked to order using fresh ingredients.”
That includes their pastas. Varieties range from hand-made ravioli pillows stuffed with a mix of mushrooms, ricotta, and Parmesan cheeses under a blanket of Sherry cream sauce; limber lengths of pappardelle Bolognese, piled with mild Italian sausage and San Marzano tomatoes; or the long, narrow tubes that tangle with sweet peas and rich, bacon-spiked sauce, known as bucatini carbonara. Entrees come with a salad. Their mixed-greens version is artistically presented, spouting from a wrap of cucumber ribbons and a side of tomato. The house’s champagne vinaigrette is bright and slightly sweet.
Any Maryland restaurant worth their salt also needs a respectable crab cake and Bistro 11 meets the challenge. Its colossal lump crab cakes are available at lunch, dinner, and brunch, where they appear as Crab Benedict, stacked with poached egg and hollandaise sauce over chewy English muffins.
Bistro 11’s surprise hit is their take on spicy, Chinese-style Kung Pao with chicken or tofu. “People are surprised to see that in a continental-style restaurant,” says Kelman. “But once they try it, people are hooked. We sell a lot of it because it’s a great recipe.”
The dish features a rich, brown sauce, fragrant with sweet hoisin and warm spices. We tried the tofu version after peppering the server with questions about their vegetarian options. She answered graciously, even popping into the kitchen to confirm details about the preparation with the chef. The dish arrived with a pretty mound of jasmine rice accented with black sesame seeds, finished with fresh pea shoots and crushed peanuts that added a satisfying crunch.
Desserts have equal savoir-faire. While changing specials satisfy the sweet tooth, two French standards are consistent winners: Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée and their indulgent Chocolate Pot de Crème.
Bistro 11 is also known for its sizable bar. “We probably have the largest bar in Hagerstown,” considers Kelman. “It’s very substantial. We have an array of beer, wines, and liquors, including a number of rare bourbons.” Blanton’s is on that list. Its distribution is limited to a few areas of the country, so fans of the Kentucky-based distillery vie to collect their limited-edition bottles and distinctive stoppers sporting horse racing figures.
The bar area is bright and open, with spaced seating on cushiony chairs. There are drink specials and a well-stocked wine list that includes 14 by-the-glass options. During brunch on Sundays from 10 AM to 3 PM, diners may enjoy five-dollar bloody Marys or mimosas made with fresh squeezed orange juice.
“We pour a great red blend wine,” insists Kelman, who carefully selects all the restaurant’s wines for easy drinkability and pairing with their menu. Guests can always ask for suggestions if several options catch their eye.
Their signature red, Palisades, is made by celebrated winemaker Joel Gott. The tasting notes mention “aromas of cherry pie and roasted coffee with notes of vanilla and spice” with subtle acidity and a “long, delicate finish.” Kelman suggests pairing a glass with their 16-hour smoked angus brisket that is glazed with a house made coffee BBQ sauce and served with Vermont cheddar mac & cheese. Bistro 11 is also gearing up for seasonal wine dinners, a perennial favorite at Kelman’s previous restaurants.
Sweethearts will also want to make plans for Valentine’s Day. Bistro 11 will celebrate with a special menu throughout the preceding weekend since the big day falls on a Monday. It works out well because most weekends at Bistro 11 feature live piano music by various artists, in genres ranging from popular to classical. To ensure a spot during busy times, reservations may be made online at bistroeleven.com or by calling the restaurant at 301-733-2222.