It was a cold and stormy winter night on our anniversary, and I was bringing Yvonne to suburban Washington’s storied French hideaway in Great Falls, Virginia, L’Auberge Chez François. The last thing I needed was putting her on edge, but I took a wrong exit off the Interstate and spent half an hour navigating nine white-knuckle roller-coaster miles of the Georgetown Pike. At last, at a T-junction emerged a sprawling and cheerfully lighted, one-story Alsatian-themed manor house with room enough for 300 diners. How, after coming upon such a refuge from the perilous road, could we not like the place?
Painlessly, it turned out. I had told them it was our anniversary when I made the reservation. Georges, a gentle graying Frenchman of a certain age, greeted us as though we were personal guests and led us to a candle-lit table. But we prefer sitting side-by-side, not across from one another, so Georges led us to another room and another, to a small round table near a window. It was just right, except for a wintery draft. An assistant brought fine woolen shawls, one from India for Yvonne and a subtle plaid one for me and draped them over our shoulders. Name another restaurant whose amenities include shawls.
At sixty years old, L’Auberge Chez Francois is unabashedly, traditional French, from gilt-framed tableaux down to the large, French, three-pronged forks, all without the hautiness of the Parisian palaces of haute cuisine. An immigrant Alsatian, François Haeringer, founded and ran the auberge until the night before his death at 91 nearly four years ago, and his son Jacques, a celebrity chef in his own right, has taken it on. The menu emphasizes classic beef, veal and seafood entrées with venerable merican standards like Maine lobster, Maryland crab, Alaskan salmon, Virginia ham and trout from the Shenandoah. The dinner menus are prix-fixe and six courses at prices depending on the entrées from $70 to $81, with extra charges to substitute
fee a few appetizers, such as foie gras. The Chateaubriand with béarnaisse and truffe sauce is $160, but that’s for two.
On our night, they readily accommodated Yvonne’s preference for appetizers. One was a bowl of classic lobster bisque, a scrupulous rendition of the best we have had in Paris. The other was Japanese Wagyu beef cheeks, a succulent delicacy braised with mushrooms and sherry. I started with the trios de saumons—one smoked salmon, one marinated with dill, and one a rillettte with capers—all succulent in silken texture and flavor. For the entrée, I chose the matelot de poisons, a variation on bouillabaisse with salmon, rockfish, scallops, crabmeat and shrimp in a creamy, Champagne and lobster sauce. I loved it.
Two little intervening courses were elegant touches. The first was a lentil soup in a demitasse cup and the second a tablespoon of grapefruit sherbet with tarragon. For dessert, we shared a small bowl Grand Marnier soufflé dusted with powdered sugar.
We never saw a sommelier, so we were saved from some costly temptations and settled for $9 glasses of the house’s respectable pinot noir. We had envisioned spending $250, but the check came to $163.29, including Georges’s anniversary tributes of two chilled coupes of dry Champagne. I’d quibble about a couple of things. They could send a sommelier around more. We might well have sprung for wines more attuned to our courses. And they could offer the option of valet parking, particularly on nights like ours. We need not have made a reservation. Many tables were empty on our Wednesday night in winter. Weekends, however, the place fills up. It's closed on Mondays.