Though I’ve eaten at tons of different restaurants featuring cuisines from around the world, I’ve never really had a meal at an old-school French restaurant (hereafter referred to as OSFR). In fact, OSFRs (once the vanguard of high cuisine in America) seem to be going the way of the dodo. I once ate at the now-closed Provence, and I was treated to a meal at Tocqueville, but at both French restaurants the vegetarian entree was risotto, which is (of course) Italian. I know that French cooking doesn’t lend itself to vegetarianism, but still. So when my parents started telling me about a great French restaurant near them in Great Falls, VA, I was intrigued. Then my friends Jeff & Eva raved about their trip to a French restaurant in… Great Falls Va. What was this place? L’Auberge Chez Francois (as Jeff points out, perhaps the most generic name for a French restaurant ever is Chez Francois) has been serving Alsatian inspired French cooking to the Washington, DC area for 50 years.
L’auberge is a French term referring to a small country inn or restaurant, and Chez Francois is built to mimic this, both outside and in. The menu is huge, and involves some explanation. Everything is based around your choice of entree, and the meals are prix fixe based on that choice (most are between $60-$70 per person). You begin by selecting either a soup or appetizer. There are two choices of soup, either French onion or the soup of the day, which on that day was cream of lentil. If you decide to get an appetizer there are about two dozen to choose from, plus a special appetizer of the day. Then you get a salad; the default option is the house salad, but for a small surcharge you can choose from a selection of special salads, plus the special salad of the day. Then you get your entree, and then dessert; again, you can order from the long dessert menu or you can spend a little extra and get a special dessert. If you want a dessert souffle, Chez Francois requires that you order it at the beginning of the meal so that it can be properly prepared. Here’s how my meal progressed: the warm roquefort and apple tart for appetizer, house salad, vegetable platter (the only vegetarian entree), and the chocolate souffle (how could I go to an OSFR and not get a chocolate souffle?).
They started us off with a little pre-appetizer amuse bouche; that night’s selection was a small quiche with ham, but as my sister and I were vegetarians (and my parents keep kosher) they brought us out a little mushroom with tomato instead. I had no idea how many times we would see this combination throughout the meal, but this was pretty good.
My sister and I split our appetizers, the two vegetarian options. My warm roquefort and apple tart was pretty good, but the balance was a little off. What I mean is that the roquefort was so overpowering that even the sweetness of the apples couldn’t stand up to it. The pureed apple underneath the pastry was a nice addition. My sister’s mushroom crepe featured that mixture of mushrooms and tomato, and this was actually quite good. We agreed that something about the preparation reminded us of Indian food; not necessarily the spices, but the way it was cooked. Hard to explain, but there it is.
The house salad came next, and our waiter warned us that the crouton on top was extremely garlic-y. He was right about that. The dressing was good, and though I was surprised to see enoki mushrooms on the salad at an OSFR it made for a nice, fresh salad.
A little palate cleanser before the main course, some grapefruit sorbet. It tasted very strongly of grapefruit, in a good way.
The main course: an enormous plate of vegetables, all cooked pretty well. The highlights of the dish were the roasted chestnuts, which were sweet and buttery. The tomato stuffed with wild rice was nice as well, and it matched well with the special mushroom sauce that our waiter brought out. There was also fennel, cauliflower, zucchini, green beans, and more crepes, one with mushrooms and one with tomato paste. Not bad, but by this point I’d had enough of the mushroom and tomato pairing.
The kitchen also sent out a side of green beans for us, which were good (especially with the mushroom sauce ladled over it), but there were already green beans on our plate. Not that I’m complaining about getting some extra food, you understand.
Of course there was also dessert. I kind of wish that I had waited to look at the full dessert menu before ordering the chocolate souffle, because they had something called “My Mother’s Bread Pudding.” I’m a huge bread pudding fan, from way back. The chocolate souffle was pretty good, however. Our waiter brought it out steaming hot and puffed up high, and then used a small spoon to knock a hole in the center. Then he poured some warm chocolate sauce into the hole… Yeah, it was good. Not great, but good.
Then they brought out a mignardise plate, but by this point I was way too full to eat any of them. I assume they were good.
So a few days ago my sister asked me what I thought about my meal, and I could tell by the way that she asked that she wasn’t enthusiastic about it. I have to agree — nothing was bad, but the meal felt a little boring. Having a meal at L’Auberge Chez Francois is like taking a trip back in time. There’s nothing wrong with it, and some people may love it. Although I’m glad I got to experience a real OSFR, but I can’t say I’m surprised that they have all but disappeared.
(N.B.: If you haven’t read James Villas’ excellent “Vive Le Restaurant,” originally published in Saveur Magazine, I urge you to do so — it deals precisely (and much more eloquently) with the disappearance of OSFRs.)
L’Auberge Chez Francois — 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Virginia